The pulpits of 21st-century churches reflect an absence of effective evangelistic preaching. As we endeavor to proclaim what is biblically true, we must be deliberate in preaching both from the passage we’re expounding and within the control of the rest of Scripture. Alistair Begg takes a helpful, candid look at his own process of study and preparation, sharing truth-filled insights about the challenges of evangelistic preaching.
We’re going to read together from the Gospel of Luke and the fifteenth chapter. Luke 15:1:
“Now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
“Then Jesus told them this parable: ‘Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.” I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
“‘Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.” In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
“Jesus continued: ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” So he divided his property between them.
“‘Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“‘When he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.” So he got up and went to his father.
“‘But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“‘The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
“‘But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate.
“‘Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. “Your brother has come,” he replied, “and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.”
“‘The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”
“‘“My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”’”
Let us pray together:
We bow before you, gracious God and King, acknowledging the wonder of all that you are in your person and being; worshipping you for your majesty and your faithfulness, for the fact that you are a covenant-keeping God; blessing you this morning for the gift of life itself and for the privilege of being awakened to a new day, for having been brought safely through the night and enjoying a measure of health and strength and the provision of food and clothes—things that we often are tempted to take for granted and yet which are gifts from your hand.
We thank you this morning for every spiritual blessing which is ours in Christ: for the forgiveness of our sins, for the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, for the way the Spirit of God prompts us to the Word of God and illumines its pages to us. We thank you for all that we learned from your Word yesterday. And we thank you for the fellowship into which we have been brought through the Lord Jesus Christ. We are already so glad of these hours together, the privilege of being in each other’s company, of being able to exhort and encourage one another, and all the more as we see the day of Christ’s return drawing near.
Our hearts are filled with thoughts of the places we have left behind. Our minds range to and fro. Our thoughts are often scattered and sometimes confused. Burdens press in upon us. The Evil One antagonizes us. We find ourselves buffeted in a variety of ways. And we remind ourselves this morning that our strength is in the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth—that he is the one who will not cause our foot to be moved, that he watches over us, he doesn’t slumber or sleep. We thank you that you have our coming and our going under your care.
And so we pray that in these moments that we now have, as we think together about what it means to unearth the truth of Scripture and speak about it in a way that honors Christ and commends him to those who do not believe, we seek your help. And to this end we turn to you in childlike, humble, believing prayer. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, it’s okay if you have your Bible open at Luke 15, although I have to tell you that I’m not going to make a tremendous amount of reference to it. Let me explain why. Three years ago, when we were together—at least some of us—I think many of us were tremendously helped by a session which Derek provided for us, when he gave to us the preparatory work for a sermon on David and Goliath from 1 Samuel 17, and then, as it were, spinning around for a moment, pausing only briefly, he moved from how he had approached the text to actually preaching the text.
It was very, very useful, and I’ve listened to it subsequently, and I’m sure others of you have. But it should have had a sort of rejoinder with it that said, “Please do not attempt this on your own.” Few of us should endeavor such a venture. But the pattern was so tremendously helpful that when I thought about the privilege that I have between this morning and tomorrow morning and began to look at the material, I determined that I would adopt his approach—namely, that this morning what I want to do is to think together with you about the challenge of evangelistic preaching, and particularly about the way in which we might endeavor to preach from this particular chapter. So, to think about approach, line of angle, and so on—all of the preparatory work, now, in this first session. And then tomorrow morning, hopefully, we can actually endeavor to preach from the passage and see how we do. Maybe I’ll have a number of you just come up and give me your sermons that you’ve prepared overnight and relieve me of the burden, but maybe not.
The challenge of evangelistic preaching… I had thought of this before ever I realized the obvious link between what was said last night and this morning. It is helpful to think along these lines. I was helped by it. But the challenge of it came to me because, as I sat and thought about the number of men that were coming here, and as I thought about the balance of the things that would be said, I wondered to myself, “How much evangelistic preaching is actually being done by us as a group of ministers?”
And I thought about the places that I’ve been in the last twelve months, and the things that I’ve read, and the bits and pieces I’ve observed. And I may be wrong on this; I certainly don’t want to be unkind in suggesting this. But it seems to me that there appears to be at the present time a sad absence of effective, biblical, expositional, evangelistic preaching —that as I listen to the things that are being said, as I travel around and listen to the radio as well, as I have occasion to be in conferences and to visit other churches, I think that what I’m saying is not far off the mark.
And then I ask myself, “If that is in any sense accurate, why would that be the case?” And I have six observations to make. And I will give them to you for what they’re worth—they’re only my conjecture—and I’ll be interested to talk with many of you in the course of the remainder of the time, and I’ll be glad of your correction and guidance if you feel I’ve steered off the mark.
But the first observation, which I actually had made prior to the observation that was made last night by Iain, was simply this: that the absence of effective evangelistic preaching from our pulpits is in some measure due to the influence of those who have drawn very clear lines of demarcation between the notion of preaching which edifies and preaching which evangelizes . And this is the mantra that is alive and well in the country: “We gather to learn, and we scatter to evangelize.”
Consequently, there is little if any expectation on the part of the congregation that they will hear from the pulpit evangelistic sermons. And of course, one of the inevitable results of that is that the concept of the congregants bringing friends and work colleagues and neighbors to listen to the Bible being preached because they’re confident that the gospel will be proclaimed begins to dwindle very quickly.
Now, clearly there is a sense in which that observation is accurate—I mean, the sense that we do gather in order that we might learn the Bible, in order that we might be edified, and we are at our most effective when we scatter into our communities and various ones are gossiping the gospel of the Lord Jesus. But even having said that, that does not displace the necessity of, the opportunity for, evangelistic preaching.
Secondly, I wonder, dare we say, that its absence may be in part tied to a lack of clarity—hopefully not a lack of conviction—as to the nature of the gospel that we’ve been called to proclaim; a sort of confused vagueness as to the nature of what it is we are saying when we speak about the gospel; a familiarity that has bred in part a measure of contempt—not that we would ever put it in that way, but just the very notion of being unclear in our own minds as to what it is we’re really doing when we talk about preaching evangelistically.
Third observation is simply this: that I think the absence of this kind of preaching may be tied in part to the absence of effective role models. It’d probably be accurate to say that the most influential voices in North America and from North American pulpits, for all that they may be known for, they are not best known for effective evangelistic preaching. I may be inaccurate in this. As I say, I’m open to your correction; this is conjecture on my part. But I think that, as in everything else, like develops like. And when you have as the key models those who are engaging in a certain kind of ministry, then people tend to imitate that. And in the absence of this kind of preaching, we find it diminishing in its influence.
Fourth observation would be the observation of Bolton, quoted by Packer in A Quest for Godliness when, writing concerning these things, Packer quotes Bolton as saying, “If one preaches the Bible biblically, one cannot help preaching the gospel all the time, and every sermon will be, as Bolton said, at least by implication evangelistic.” All right? Which is tremendous. I mean, I think that’s very helpful. I’m sure we concur with that. It was again addressed last evening in observing the ministry of Spurgeon. But the notion of evangelism taking place, as it were, tangentially to the exposition of Scripture is not the same as a pastor sitting down and determining that with God’s help, either on a particular occasion or in a particular series and with the concurrence and prayers of the congregation, he is going to give himself as best as he’s able to explaining the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, I’m even rebuked in my own spirit in relationship to writing these things down, because when I came here to Parkside twenty-two years ago, we did far more of this than we now do. We had little cards that were printed. We had series of evangelistic opportunities which we commended to our congregation and urged them to bring their friends and neighbors. And as I began to think about the absence of evangelistic preaching, it started with myself and not with anyone else.
The fifth reason that there may be a lack of it is because it isn’t easy. It isn’t easy. In the Diary of Kenneth MacRae, which is published by Banner—I must make sure I’m recommending the right books here today—but there’s a wonderful section on preachers and preaching. And he writes in his diary in 1940, he says, “Mr. ..”—he doesn’t tell us who the “Mr.” was, preserving the man’s memory—
Mr. [X] said a great deal, but very little of it, except what bore upon the last clause, had any relation to his text. It was quite evident that he had not tried to get to the meaning of his text nor to study it. He shouted and banged, however, to such an extent, that he seemed to get the better of the nerves of some of the country girls. Fortunately, they were able to control themselves, but I felt very displeased. …
Doubtless he regards himself as an expository preacher, as he just gradually moves through a verse—or verses—saying whatever strikes him as he does so.
Now, this has become a very prevalent notion, that if you’re an expository preacher, what you do is you go verse by verse, and you announce whatever you happened to have found in the verse. MacRae’s saying, maybe that’s not so good:
saying whatever strikes him as he does so, but there is no attempt at orderly arrangement and the various steps of his progress are not marked off so that his listeners can appreciate them. The result is that although he has many good thoughts one finds difficulty in sustaining prolonged attention and to carry away a sermon from him is an impossibility even to the strongest memory.
Which is a nice way of saying, “When he was finished, we hadn’t a clue what he was on about!” And when we apply that to the whole notion of speaking expressly to those who are unbelievers, it is shameful to the worst degree.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his series of evangelistic sermons—both from Sandfields and then his Old Testament evangelistic sermons, which I commend to you as wonderful to read of an evening and to stir your heart and mind—writing about his approach to his evangelistic sermons, he identified the fact that he wrote them out in full for the first ten years of his ministry. And he said this: “I believe that one should be unusually careful in evangelistic sermons. That is why the idea that a fellow who is merely gifted with a certain amount of glibness of speech and self-confidence, not to say cheek, can make an evangelist is all wrong. The greatest men should always be the evangelists, and generally have been.”
Now, I got to this by saying that one of the reasons we don’t do this, or we’re tempted to set it aside, is actually because it is difficult to do. And it confronts us with the challenge to bring together all that God has given us in terms of our faculties of mind and spirit and creativity and imagination and so on.
And the sixth thing, by way of observation, is to say that it may be set aside because we think that we’re preaching evangelistically when in point of fact we’re not preaching evangelistically at all. I’m referring now to the notion that you’ve done evangelism in the pulpit when, after you have labored over a passage on, let’s say, God’s vengeance on the Midianites in Numbers 31, and as you dribble to a conclusion from your vast reservoir of information on the Midianites, then, in order to save yourself, you find yourself saying, “And if you’ve never repented, then…” And the person says, “What?” “Well, no, this is the evangelism part.” This is not evangelism. This is stupidity of the first degree.
Graeme Goldsworthy’s books are a tremendous help, I think. And he points out in this respect, he says, “Telling [the] people the need for the gospel, both their felt need and their real need, is plainly important, but it is not itself the gospel. When we have explained what God has done for us in Christ—[namely,] the gospel—then we may go on to explain the benefits of receiving the gospel and the perils of ignoring it.”
So I suggest to you that one of the reasons for the absence of effective biblical, expository, evangelistic preaching is because we have succumbed to the notion that we’re actually doing it when we’re not doing it . And we think that somehow or another tagging the sort of requisite evangelistic mantra at the end of whatever we say is covering our bases and is engaging the minds and hearts of people. Of course, God is able to use all kinds of things; we understand that. But we ought not to assume that his patience with us is necessarily his permission.
Now, with all of that by way of introductory observations, let me turn with you to this passage. And I do this with a great deal of diffidence. I’ve been asked on a number of occasions to go behind the scenes, as it were. People come and say, “Can I see your notes?” And I say, “Well, maybe, but probably not.” “Um, can I… can I go in your room?” “Mmm, maybe, yes, perhaps,” and so on. And it’s not because of anything other than, I really don’t like my notes. And I’m just distinctly uncomfortable. I mean, I was one of those boys as school who put my arm around my essay when I was writing it. And I hated art class, because in art class you were allowed to get up and walk around, and you had your picture in front of you. And that meant that the people could come around the class and stand and look at your stuff, which was lousy. But it didn’t stop them looking. And so the idea of me saying to you, “Let me tell you what I did when I went to Luke 15” is alarming. Because I know that I don’t do this very well, and it’s certainly not exemplary. This would be like having a master class without a master—some of you who played the violin or who knew the notes.
You know, one of my favorite quotes is the Earl of Rochester in this regard. I feel about preaching the way he felt about child rearing: he said, “Before I got married I had six theories about raising children; now I have six children and no theories.” And the longer I go preaching, I actually think that no one knows how to preach—except Jesus. Jesus was the best and the great preacher, and the rest of us are an approximation to it. And part of my problem is that so much of what I personally do is intuitive. And I don’t know what I do, and I don’t know how I do it. But I’m going to try my best to say some things, and I hope that this will be helpful.
I’ve chosen the most familiar passage of all, I think you would agree. Perhaps you think, “Well, of course, he did that because it’s easy,” but I don’t think it is easy. My experience—I wonder, would you concur with this?—is that the hardest passages are the ones that I think I know the most about when I come to them. And in coming to them with a sense of freshness and approaching them with a sense of genuine investigation, that is mitigated against by the things that we think we know or the sermons we’ve already heard or preached.
I found the first sermon I ever preached on this; it was on July 18, 1976. I think it must have been at Charlotte Chapel, in Derek Prime’s absence on a Sunday. And my sermon began—I’m quoting from it now—“I don’t know whether you are in the habit of reading the lost-and-found column in your newspaper, but the passage we read this evening might justifiably be referred to as a biblical ‘lost and found.’” Now, that is why Spurgeon says, “Keep your sermons to weep over.”
Okay, so we have the passage. What do we do? Well, I’m going to follow the little pattern that I borrowed from Leith Samuel, who borrowed it from someone else, and I’ve written about elsewhere. And I’ll use this just as a framework to get us through.
First of all, we try to think ourselves empty. We’re going to preach evangelistically from Luke 15. What are we going to do? Well, we’re going to get a sheet of paper, or our laptop, or whatever mechanism we use, and we’re going to think about everything and anything that comes into our minds in relationship to the matter before us. We’re going to allow our minds free rein. Some of it will be helpful, some of it will stay, much of it will be just pretty well useless and will go the way of the tailor’s excess cloth in the making of a good suit.
I will give to you the kind of way my mind has worked. First of all, noticing verses 1 and 2, I wrote down that this contrast is obviously important—the contrast between the response of the tax collectors and the sinners, who were eager to hear Jesus, and the Pharisees and teachers, who muttered concerning his interest in welcoming sinners and eating with them.
That “eating with them” made me think of Jesus eating with sinners, which made me make a note of Levi. I couldn’t remember just which chapter Levi was in, but I found him; he was back in chapter 5, and so I wrote down in my notes, in relationship to the contrast, “Make sure that you reference what took place in Levi’s house.” Because really, that was at the very start of this significant contrast, which runs all the way through Luke’s Gospel, between the response of those who know themselves to be helpless and hopeless and the response of those who are trusting in their own righteousness.
I then wrote down “the parable”: “Jesus [then] told them this parable,” so I wrote down the word parable, and I said, “What is a parable? How is it used here? How is parable used elsewhere?” If I’m going to deal with this, I need to understand it myself, even if I don’t tell everybody else what I know about parables—which, of course, as of that moment in the morning is not a great deal. But I’m never alarmed by that.
I also make sure that when I open to the chapter, I try and ensure that I’m not coming to this in isolation from everything else—that chapter 15 is in between 14 and 16, there’s a reason for that, and that the controls which are going to be on the way in which this passage is then unfolded will be the controls of the surrounding verses, the controls of the genre itself, the controls of the surrounding passages of Scripture. And indeed, the ultimate control is the control of the Bible on the Bible, so that we teach the Bible by teaching the Bible.
And I remind myself routinely of the Westminster Directory for Public Worship—and I say that not facetiously, but I do, because I have it written down, and three points in particular by way of reminder concerning the controls which need to be on us as we think our way through the passage: Number one, that the matter we preach should be true—that is, in light of the general doctrines of Scripture. It’s a controlling factor. Number two, that it should be the truth that is contained in the passage we’re expounding. Number three, that it should be the truth preached under the control of the rest of Scripture.
Now, that third one is very, very important when it comes to the matter of the prodigal son, as we’ll see in just a moment. ’Cause there’s something strikingly missing from the story of the prodigal son, and unless we preach the story of the father’s love for this son in terms of his welcome home, unless we preach it in light of the controls of the rest of the Scripture—what we know of the love of God and the great cost of redemption—then it will be possible for us to teach this passage of Scripture in a way that is wooly and unclear and will leave people confused.
I also made note—as I’m just thinking myself empty—I made note of the fact that there are essentially three stories, and so I questioned whether I would preach three single sermons, or whether I would preach just one sermon, whether I would isolate one passage from the rest, and I also made a subnote to say, “Perhaps we should have two sermons on the third parable, especially as it relates to the response of the one son and then the other.”
I also scribbled down “one in a hundred, one in ten, one in two,” and put a dash in my notes and wrote the word intensity. It would appear that the whole process of the instruction of Jesus is building in its intensity.
I also looked at the parable—because I’ve heard this many times, and you have too—and I said to myself, “This is entitled ‘The Parable of the Lost Son.’” That’s what the NIV says. Well, clearly it is, in parable one, a lost sheep; it’s also a seeking shepherd; it’s a lost coin and a seeking woman; and it’s a lost son and a seeking father. But whose parable is this? Is this the parable of the father’s love? Or is it right to see the focus, as it were, throughout the whole story as being on the one son? And is Luke actually giving to us, with the focus on the one son, the reaction of the return to the son, first as represented by the compassion of the father, and then as represented by the animosity of the older brother?
And, of course, we need to think that out in relationship to the way in which the whole thing is set up in verses 1 and 2: that the tax collectors and the publicans were interested and gathered to hear Jesus, and the Pharisees muttered, “This man has gone and welcomed sinners.” There was two totally different reactions to the same ministry that Jesus was exercising. And in the unfolding story there are, then, two totally different reactions to the return of the son.
I also noted for myself, thinking myself empty, that this fifteenth chapter in the Gospel of Luke—really, along with the rest of Luke’s Gospel—serves, if you like, as a prolonged illustration of Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates his … love [towards] us in this: [that] while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And so I wrote that down.
Then I wrote a note to myself: “What about the absence of the atonement in this?”—which is what I was referring to earlier. And I made a note to say, “Well, how am I going to teach this parable correctly without the central truth, as it were, of the nature of God’s love at great cost, and so on, in all that we know from the rest of the Bible?” And I just simply made a note; I said, “I have to think about how that works.”
As some of you know, I suffer from various viruses in relationship to contemporary music, and it’s usually impossible for me not to read a passage of Scripture without stuff from my past coming back. And I wrote down just a number of lines. I wrote down the line “I can’t help but wonder where I’m bound.” It’s an old folk song; you may remember it:
Had a brother way back home,
And he started out to roam,
And last I heard he was out by Frisco Bay.
And sometimes when I’m feeling blue,
His old voice comes winging through,
And I’m going out to meet him some fine day.
But I can’t help but wonder
Where I’m bound, where I’m bound.
I just can’t help but wonder where I’m bound.
And that came to mind ’cause I thought of this boy as he wandered around in this city, and then as his circumstances became increasingly dissolute and so on, I thought perhaps he would have found himself with those words on his mind—anachronistically, I understand.
And, of course, Dylan is not far away. I imagine the boy walking down the road whistling to himself, singing to himself,
Come mothers and fathers all over the land,
And don’t criticize what you can’t understand;
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
And your own road is rapidly fading.
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand,
because the times they’re a-changing.
And the defiance with which he goes off down the road expressed in so many contemporary terms—at least, not contemporary anymore, for our generation, but contemporary for an old guy like me. But at least it pushes me in that direction.
Thinking myself empty, I also remembered that someone had given me a poem one time about the prodigal son. And because of a filing system that I learned in the early days in Edinburgh, I was able to go and retrieve the poem, and I may read it to you at some point, but I won’t take time now. And since I was reading a novel by P. D. James and was making a note of various things in it, I remembered just the briefest of passages concerning the way in which one of the individual characters was said to visit the local church community, and how she would attend church quietly, her “moral code” marked by “cleanliness, respectability and prudence,” regarding religion as “for those who had the time for it, a middle-class indulgence,” and how “Tally entered London’s churches with the same curiosity and expectation” that she had when she entered a new museum.
And I wrote that down simply because it came to mind as a reminder to me that many of the people who would listen to this evangelistic sermon are exactly within that kind of mindset—that that is the way in which they are attending upon the preaching of the Word of God. They are not coming with a great sense of expectation. They are not coming with their minds focused on these things. They may be coming out of idle curiosity. And part of the challenge as we approach the teaching of the Bible is to recognize that people are sitting out there in all varieties of stages, as was reminded of us last night. And we need to keep that before us.
I also noted that it seemed to me that the third story rests upon the first two, and I thought I’d have to pay attention to that.
I then asked myself the questions that were given to me by somebody along the way. I can’t remember who gave them to me, but I thought they were helpful: I said, “Well, let’s make sure that as I try and get to grips with this, I ask myself, ‘What does the passage actually say?’” It’s possible, you see, to launch into a sermon and never ask that question. Because we assume we know: “Oh, we know this. We’ve done this since Sunday school. We know this. I’ve got old notes on this,” we say. “I have an outline on this. I don’t have to study much this week. This is super! I’m ready to go.” And what we offer up to our people is a bowl of porridge that has been stale for a long time, heated up in the microwave, and comes out with as much conviction as somebody reading from the Yellow Pages.
What does the passage say? Why does it say it in a way that it says it? How does it fit in the context of the wider material? And what’s surprising about it? What’s surprising about it?
Well, you could spend a long time on that, couldn’t you? You’d at least say, “What’s surprising is that this boy doesn’t get what he deserves!” I mean, he deserves a good hiding. He deserves to be shut out. Surprising! And in the first story, the notion is clearly of God’s love seeking and searching and rescuing. The same is true in the second story. But it is the third story that makes sure that we don’t have the mistaken notion that men and women might automatically be saved like the sheep and the coin—that the human responsibility, that the demand upon the willful life of this young boy, is part and parcel of what’s going on.
Now, asking the right questions is clearly vital, isn’t it? These kind of questions are important, in contrast to the somewhat humorous but all too prevalent questions that you find in many a home Bible study group. If you’re not careful, your home Bible study groups will sit down, they’ll take a passage of Scripture, and the leader will ask the group, “Now, let’s just ask this evening, first of all, how does this passage make you feel?”
And Mrs. Jenkins says, “Well, I felt very warm in reading this passage.” No, that’s because you’re sitting next to the radiator. It’s got nothing at all to do with the passage.
And once he’s exhausted that to the point of triviality, he then says, “And what does the passage remind you of that you’d like to share?” And then Mr. Williamson remembers how when he was a boy, his uncle used to do certain things, and off we go down the past with Mr. Williamson, completely irrelevant and largely unhelpful.
So we move to the third question: “Let’s just think for a moment: If you had been there, what would you have written?” Then it gets even worse by the minute, ’cause people begin to rewrite the Bible and say, “Well, I think I would have done this, or I might have included that.”
“Oh, that’s very interesting! Wonderfully helpful! Are you taking notes?”
“Now, finally, before we wrap it up,” says the leader, “is there anything that if you’d been there you would like to have changed?”
Someone says, “Well, yes, I could change…”
See, if we don’t ask the right questions in thinking ourselves empty in coming to the text, and we do not model that—not necessarily by overtly saying, “Okay, here’s the question and here’s our response,” and leading by that, but just by the very methodology with which we approach our preaching—our own congregations will [not] learn, then, an approach to the Bible which is accurate, which is helpful and humble and kind, and so on.
And at the very heart of it all—and I must move on—I made a note to myself to say, “What is the essential Christian doctrine that is found in this passage?”—or “Christian doctrines?” What do we know here of God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit? It’s the old Scripture Union questions, really, from notes when I was a boy: What does this teach you about God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit? Those questions are helpful too. Is there a sin to avoid? Is there a command to obey? Is there an example to follow? All of these kinds of questions are so vitally helpful, and they begin to unfold the material for us.
Now, that’s the first thing that I’m endeavoring to do: to think myself empty. Then secondly, to read myself full—read myself full. Once you’ve scribbled for a while—and it may not take that long to scribble, because sometimes our heads have got very little in them at all; that’s my experience regularly. And you say, “Well, you stacked it for this one, just to impress us.” Well, yes, I did. That’s the truth, yes. Because it would be pretty bad to say, “Think yourself empty,” and then say, “Well, I couldn’t think of anything,” and move on. But that happens consistently, regularly, and I have to go quickly to “read yourself full.”
What do I read? Well, I read the passage, and I try and read it in another English version, or maybe another couple of English versions. I’m a great fan of J. B. Phillips’s paraphrase, in terms of just giving a little turn to it and an insight—that was quoted, I think, in part Sunday morning from our preacher.
In terms of reading it in the original language: it’s a long time for me since 1975, when I finished up at LBC. I do have a working knowledge of Greek. I find that I can use my interlinear with relative ease. But I don’t use it, quite honestly, a lot in the reading of the Gospels. It’s more helpful, in terms of words and so on, in the Epistles, at least I find.
And frankly, most of us need to be honest in relationship to our use of languages, whether it is Greek or Hebrew: few of us are actually very able in them at all. I mean, I appreciate the honesty of the man who from the pulpit said that he knew a little Greek and he knew a little Hebrew; and the little Hebrew made his suits, and the little Greek had a restaurant on the corner down from the church. And frankly, that’s where most of us ought to leave the languages, and not try and convince our people that we were deeply buried in Hebrew syntax just on Tuesday, and out of this great mine we have found this nugget. And if we had gone down the mine, we would never have emerged; let’s be honest about it. Some of us should go down the mine and stay down the mine!
But the question of parable, remember? We said we’d have to figure what parable was, and so, in reading ourselves full, I need to find somebody who says something sensible about parables. And I don’t want a four-hundred-page treatment on parables; I’m looking, really, for a couple of paragraphs. And when I find them, then I rejoice as one who has found hidden treasure.
And so, for example, when I found these words, it was very helpful to me:
Jesus’ parables fall broadly into two categories. Some are extended similes: “The kingdom of God is like the pearl of great price, the mustard seed,” etc. Such parables are coded visual aids illustrating a particular spiritual truth in a deliberately cryptic fashion.
Now, language like that is helpful to me. I think it rings for you as well: “a particularly spiritual truth in a deliberately cryptic fashion.”
The other kind of parable is much closer to being an allegorical story.
Said, “Okay, this is where we’re going now; this is clearly the kind of parable we’re dealing with here.”
On the surface, they seem to be fairly innocuous, but they have a sting in the tail, a punchline that creeps up on you and hits you when you’re least expecting it.
Now, when I read that, I said, “Okay, that helps me as I think in terms of what’s happening here.” The Pharisees came around, and they were muttering, “This man eats with sinners and welcomes them and sits with them at the table. This is the kind of thing we saw at Levi’s house. It is going from bad to worse.” Jesus said, “Suppose one of you had… Suppose one of you had… And did you hear the story about the father with the two sons?” And as he speaks and brings them along, and as they listen, he is, if you like, in every right way setting them up for the punch which comes at the end in relationship to the elder brother. And unless we pay attention to the fact that we’re dealing with parabolic material, then we may be tempted to say all kinds of good things and come up with a fairly helpful discourse but yet not actually do the job as required.
In the reading of ourselves full, we’re going to read some commentaries, aren’t we? I think we’re done with commentaries now. Nobody needs to write any more, except pastors should be writing commentaries. Because they know what we need. We know what we need, don’t we? Get to the point! You know, do not pass Go!, do not collect two hundred dollars; go immediately to the point. But they’re out there, and the technical ones are helpful, depending on how your head’s put together. Sometimes a vaguely liberal commentary, if you’ll forgive me, can actually help to set our course—antithetically, usually. But every so often, you know, you find a little nugget in there, even in the midst of so much nonsense.
I’ll just give you comments on Luke. I’ve found that Green’s commentary in the New International Commentary on the New Testament is helpful. In The Bible Speaks Today, the Wilcock commentary flies over fairly high but is useful. Bock, the two volumes on Luke, which you may have, which are impressive on the bookshelf, have not been as helpful to me in my studies in Luke, but it may be just the way my mind goes. Marshall, from Aberdeen… annoyed me. I might as well be honest with you. It just annoyed me. It seemed to be so redactionist, leaning so much to form criticism, that it drew me away from an insight into the text and a dependence upon the text, and it made me think other thoughts that frankly were unhelpful and were not conducive to the task at hand. Plummer, in the old green book that I forget who wrote that, in the Critical Commentary series, is helpful in part. Edersheim’s books, both on the Old Testament and the New Testament, I find to be helpful; I have a quote from Edersheim in just a moment. And Geldenhuys, in the New International Commentary on the New Testament, again I found to be one of the most helpful.
Now, let me say something in relationship to commentaries. I wonder, do you find this? I find that if I too quickly go to a commentary written by someone that I admire and trust, and particularly if that commentary is at all homiletical, I may find myself completely up the creek, in the sense that it seems to me that the person whom I admire and trust has dealt with the passage in such a way that I say, “I can’t do any better than this.” So I have two options: you know, try and make it sound like me but have it really be him, or admit that I can’t do any better than this and let everybody know that I can’t by virtue of the paltry structure that then unfolds. It really is a dilemma, and I think the only answer to it is, stay away from your favorites.
So, for example, John Stott has a peculiar ability to thread the needle, you know, through a passage of Scripture. He can take ten or eleven verses and hit them with a hammer, and they all fall out so wonderfully. And you say to yourself, “Why didn’t I see that?” And then, having seen it, it’s hard not to see anything else at all. So in the reading yourself full, I think that is of great importance.
Now, our time is almost gone. Third aspect is, if we’re going to do this, we need to write ourselves clear—write ourselves clear. There’s no shortcut—there is no shortcut—to lucidity and fluidity of speech. And when we think in terms of writing ourselves clear, we inevitably come up with the question of, “Well, what do I do about points? What do I do about outline? How do I get structure into the thing?” and so on.
And in my early days, my favorite sermons were sermons like these—and I won’t tell you who preached this, but he was Englishman preaching in Scotland, and he preached the parable of the prodigal son as follows: “My first point is the desires that mastered him.” You might want to write this down, ’cause this is a good outline. “The desires that mastered him: he was sincere, he was selfish, he was stubborn—s, s, s. Secondly, the disasters that met him: he lost his wealth, he lost his freedom, he lost his self-respect. Thirdly, the discoveries that made him: the failure he was, the father he had, the fullness he found.” And then, his summary, he says, “You may actually think of this story in these terms: this young man was sick of home, homesick, and home.” And then he said, “The father’s kiss is seen on Calvary.”
Now, as a boy and as a young man listening to that kind of preaching, that became the absolute gold standard for me. And so, as I then came into pastoral ministry, I found myself just absolutely, almost to the point of paralysis, trying to create these amazing outlines. And they were never any good unless everything fitted together … and all of those kind of things. It didn’t really matter what the text had to say once you got going on that thing; you were just walking around the kitchen: “There’s a D somewhere, I know there’s a D, there’s gotta be a D,” you know? You’re finding words that were never in your vocabulary and never will be used again, just to get a D.
And in my early days, as I say, I was often completely paralyzed by this. And then I began to listen to others, I began to read sermons. I began to read the Puritans, and they set me free. Because the Puritans were amazing, weren’t they? You know, sometimes, you read their sermon and the fellow says, “And now, twenty-seventhly…” And you can imagine… I haven’t tried that yet, but it’s on the list.
And so I said, “Okay, well, there’s a lot of ways of going about this.” And then I was reminded of the Puritan pastor who was somewhat embarrassed by the number of points he’d had in his sermon in the morning, and he came in the evening, he said, “I’m sorry this morning that I had so many points.” He said, “my sermon this evening will be pointless.”
But the process of writing things down—and I can only say this and move to my last point, ’cause our time is gone, and coffee awaits us, and it’s always nice to have something to look forward to—but write your sermons out in full for the first five years. Write your sermons out in full for the first five years. I know many of you have come from places—’cause I have the privilege of speaking at all these different seminaries now, and the homiletical professors invite me in once, and then never back again, because I don’t fit the framework of how you’re supposed to start, and my development is all wrong, and my conclusion is lousy. And so they say, “Well, thanks for coming in. At least we can teach antithetically how Alistair gives a great illustration of what not to do. Let’s get back to our textbooks.”
But what do we learn? We learn that our sermons will be set free from that kind of tyranny by engaging the text —by recognizing that the way we teach Ecclesiastes will probably be different from the way we expound the epistle of Jude; the way in which we tackle the Old Testament narrative in Ruth must inevitably be different from the way in which we’re going to unfold portions of 1 Corinthians. In other words, we’re allowing the genre, whether it is narrative or apocalyptic or poetry—in this case, parable—to determine our line of approach. And it is as we begin to write, as we begin to lay our thoughts down, that we will begin to see whether we’re doing that or not. And failure to do that, all of our addresses will just be immediately flattened to the prosaic level of a theology textbook. If you and I find that we can preach the same way from every passage in the Bible—the same kind of structure, the same kind of outline, the same kind of notes—we are not paying attention to the text that we’re dealing with. The text must establish the framework, the direction, as well as the agenda.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, I said to you earlier, was committed to writing out for the first ten years his evangelistic sermons. This is what he said concerning it:
I felt that writing was good discipline, good for producing ordered thought and arrangement and sequence and development of the argument and so on. … If I am asked which sermons I wrote, I have already said that I used to divide my ministry, as I still do, into edification of the saints in the morning and a more evangelistic service in the evening. Well, my practice was to write my evangelistic sermon.
Now, you think about that just as a discipline. Again, you come back to the notion that we might think we’re proclaiming the gospel when we are warning people of the perils of rejecting it, urging upon them the benefits of receiving it, and actually failing to speak about all that God has done in Christ , making him sin for us and so on. The way in which we will determine whether we’re there is by actually writing it down and looking at it.
And although I am now thirty years into this task, I still write my sermons out in full. And I still bring them to the pulpit—not because I depend upon them, but because I’ve got myself into such a notion that I am afraid of myself lest, as a result of fluidity of language, and self-focus, and a million other sinful things, I may assume that I can actually do this now without the hard work of preparation.
The last thing, or the penultimate thing, is to pray yourself hot—to pray yourself hot. There’s no chance of fire in the pews if there’s an iceberg in the pulpit. And it is absolutely imperative that we come to God in the communion of things.
John Shaw, in Massachusetts in 1752, says,
If any men in the world need the special presence of God with them, and his blessing in order to succeed, certainly ministers do. For what is the design and end of their ministry? Is it not to open the eyes of sinners, to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of sin and Satan to God in Christ? And “who is sufficient for these things?” In a work of this nature, what can ministers, of themselves, do? Verily, they may preach even to paleness and faintness, until the bellows are burnt, until their lungs and vitals are consumed, and their hearers will never be the better; not one sinner will be converted until God is graciously pleased, by the efficacious working of his Spirit, to add his blessing to their labors and make his Word, in the mouth of the preacher, sharper than any two-edged sword in the heart of the hearer. All will be vain, to no saving purpose, until God is pleased to give the increase. And in order to do this, God looks for their prayers to come up to his ears. A praying minister is in the way to hav[ing] a successful ministry.
And the last thing to note is that then, when we come to the task of our evangelistic sermon, we need to be ourself and not preach ourselves. We need to clear the way, declare the way, and get out of the way.
All of us are thankful for our models and our mentors, aren’t we? I’m sure we are. We have people that we listen to and we like to listen to, and sometimes we may have thought of trying to be like them. It’s not a good idea.
When I started in Edinburgh, I thought that I could preach like Derek Prime: scholarly, organized, disciplined, clear, advancing on you with every sentence. Tried it and couldn’t. I thought I’d like to preach like Eric Alexander, with that kind of Celtic passion. Eric can get more out of “Ooooh!” than most of us can get out of a paragraph. I don’t understand that: “Ooooh!” I tried it, but it came out like “Ohhhh!” Dick Lucas, self-deprecating—P. G. Wodehouse character, with immense skill and lightness of touch: “I’ve never really understood this passage before yesterday.” I can’t do that either.
So I determined the unifying features: commitment to Christ and the Scriptures, and a core-level dependence upon the Spirit of God. And everyone that would be influential in helping us in this direction, from the apostles on, will be people who have been swept off their feet by the news that they’ve been called to proclaim.
Let me give you two Scottish quotes, and I’m done: George Morrison and MacRae, again, from his diaries: “Men who do their best always do more, though … haunted by [a] sense of failure. Be good and true; be patient; be undaunted. Leave your usefulness for God to estimate. He will see to it that you do not live in vain.”
And then MacRae: “[The preacher] must not be surprised if in some cases the effect of [his] preaching is the opposite of what [he expects]. … Offence or no offence, I shall not cease to proclaim what God has given me. I would rather see a soul leave me because offended at my words than that he should drift calmly into hell without a word of warning from me.”
Father, we pray for your help as we seek to be students of the Bible, try and learn how to approach the text in order that by your enabling we may preach it usefully. We pray for our congregations, that you will give to us a great and honest longing to see unbelieving people become the committed followers of Jesus Christ—that we’ll think about the place of evangelistic preaching and how we might be better equipped for the task.
Now bless our time of fellowship and the session which follows, we pray, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
 Hebrews 10:25 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 121:2–3 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 121:8 (paraphrased).
 J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990), 169.
 Kenneth A. MacRae, Diary of Kenneth A. MacRae: A Record of Fifty Years in the Christian Ministry, ed. Iain H. Murray (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1980), 358.
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 216.
 Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 95.
 Charles H. Spurgeon, The Sword and Trowel (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1875), 253. Paraphrased.
 Tom Paxton, “I Can’t Help but Wonder Where I’m Bound” (1964). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (1963). Lyrics lightly altered.
 P. D. James, The Murder Room (2003; repr., Toronto: Vintage, 2011), 61.
 Roy Clements, A Sting in the Tale (Leicester, UK: Inter-Varsity, 1995), 7–8. Paraphrased.
 See Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).
 See Michael Wilcock, The Message of Luke: The Saviour of the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1979).
 See Darrell L. Bock, Luke, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994).
 See I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1978).
 See Alfred Plummer, Luke: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, The International Critical Commentary (London: T&T Clark, 2000).
 See Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke: The English Text with Introduction Exposition and Notes, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979).
 Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, 215–16.
 John Shaw, The Character of a Pastor According to God’s Heart Considered (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1992), 10, qtd. in Alistair Begg, Preaching for God’s Glory (1999; repr., Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 56.
 George Herbert Morrison, The Wind on the Heath: Sunday Evening Addresses from a Glasgow Pulpit (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1916), 10.
 MacRae, Diary, 38–39.
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.