What Happened to Expository Preaching?
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What Happened to Expository Preaching?

From Series: The Pastor’s Study, Volume 2

Selected Scriptures  (ID: 2155)

Every pulpit must allow the Bible, not the pew, to determine what is preached. Many pastors face the temptation to entertain the congregation or treat God’s Word as a product in need of selling. The preacher’s true duty, however, is to uncover the text’s meaning and relay his findings to the people of God in a way that does not compromise the integrity of Scripture. Alistair Begg encourages us not to lose confidence in the Bible’s ability to save the lost and edify the church.


Sermon Transcript:

I was born, as some of you will have realized, in Scotland, and I have vivid recollections of church in Scotland, as Sundays in Scotland are very different from the average Sunday in America. If you had a parakeet, it was not allowed to swing on its perch on a Sunday, because it would be enjoying itself, and that would definitely not be allowed.

Although we attended a large city-center mission hall, I was taken frequently to a Presbyterian church in the center of the city called St George’s Tron, which is best known now because of the ministry of Eric Alexander and, currently, the ministry of Sinclair Ferguson. The routine there on a Sunday morning, if you’ve ever attended, is now—at least it was the last time I was there—as it always was way back forty years ago. And that is that at about five or six minutes to eleven, before the commencement of the morning service, the beadle—the beadle, not the beetle but the beadle, b-e-a-d-l-e, look it up—let’s call him the “parish official” would appear from the doorway underneath the pulpit carrying a large Bible. He would then ascend the stairs and lay the Bible down on the pulpit, would open the Bible, and take these gigantic ribbons and put them in the place for the day. He would then pause for a moment, descend the stairs, and disappear. He would then return about a minute later, this time in front of the minister. He would then step aside, the minister would make his way slowly up the pulpit stairs, would be seated; the beadle would follow up the stairs and would essentially lock him in the pulpit, closing the door and turning the handle on him to make sure that he didn’t get out.

As a small boy, it was always immediately obvious to me that whatever was about to happen in the subsequent proceedings, it definitely had something to do with the large book that had just been laid up there. And while the man appeared to be standing over the book, in reality he was standing underneath it—that he was underneath Scripture, not so much over Scripture. That he was about to do what Jim Packer talks about doing—namely, letting texts talk. He was going to preach the Bible by preaching the Bible.

James W. Alexander, writing about Scottish Presbyterians in an earlier era, said,

Among the … Scottish Presbyterians … every man and woman, nay, almost every child, carried his pocket-Bible to church, and not only looked out [at] the text, but verified each citation; and as the preaching was in great part of the expository kind, the necessary consequence was, that the whole population became intimately acquainted with the structure of every book in the Bible, and were able to recall every passage with its appropriate accompanying truths.[1]

Now, that’s from a book called Thoughts on Preaching by Banner of Truth; it was reprinted in 1975, and the quote’s on page 240. Some of you will have the book.

Richard Baxter, in an earlier era, reminded his fellow pastors of the central place of preaching when he said,

We must be serious, earnest, and zealous in every part of our work. Our work requireth greater skill, and especially greater life and zeal than any of us bring to it. It is no small matter to stand up in the face of [the] congregation, and to deliver a message of salvation or damnation, as from the living God, in the name of the Redeemer. It is no easy matter to speak so [plain], that the most ignorant may understand us; and so seriously that the deadest [heart] may feel us; and so convincingly, that the contradicting cavillers may be silenced.[2]

That’s from The Reformed Pastor, page 117.

Now, obviously, any decline or absence of expository preaching is going to bring undeniable and undesirable results. “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in?” says Paul. “And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they[’re] sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”[3]

Now, about fifty years ago—actually, more than that now—Sangster, the great Methodist preacher in Britain, began a volume on preaching with these words: “Preaching is in the shadows. The world does not believe in it.”[4] Today, at the commencement of a new millennium—certainly at the beginning of a new century, for those of you who’re still waiting twelve months before the millennium begins, the mathematical pedants—but anyway, wherever we are, the situation is graver still. Preaching is still in the shadows, but this time much of the church does not believe in it. And that, I want to suggest to you, is the fundamental issue that is presented to us: that much of what now emanates from contemporary pulpits would not have been recognized either by Alexander or Baxter or Sangster as being anywhere close to the kind of expository Bible teaching which is exactly that: Bible based, Christ focused, and life changing. That much that emanates from contemporary pulpits is not marked by doctrinal clarity, or by a sense of gravity, or by convincing argument.

Now, obviously, inherent in what I’m saying is the conviction that true preaching must be marked by doctrinal clarity, a sense of gravity, and convincing argument. And the kind of approach that starts off with a guy with a handheld microphone just saying, “Good morning, everybody. So glad you managed to get out. Don’t want to disturb you or upset you in any way; I certainly don’t want to preach to you. I really don’t really know why I’m here at all, but I have a couple of…” You know, that kind of thing where the average person is sitting out and saying, “Whatever is about to happen, it’s nothing at all related to whatever was happening when the beadle went up the stairs there in the Presbyterian church in the center of Glasgow.” It’s two totally different concepts of what’s taking place.

We’ve become very familiar with preaching that pays scant attention to the Bible, is self-focused, and is consequently only capable of making the most superficial impact upon the lives of the listeners. This would be bad enough were it not for the fact that large sections of the church who listen to this kind of stuff are actually oblivious to the fact that what they’re getting is a placebo rather that the real medicine. And therefore, they leave satisfied with the feeling that it has done them some good—a feeling which disguises the gravity of the situation.

They’re like people drinking those shakes you get. Whatever is in them, I don’t know what they are, but you get a little packet of stuff, you put it in the thing, you put milk in it, or whatever else it is, and water, and then the thing comes out, it’s gigantic! I mean, how do they… I know it’s a chemical reaction about which I know nothing, but the thing is, it takes me about seven glasses to down the stuff. And it was only a tiny little packet, and I only put eight ounces of water in, and yet it’s everywhere. Now, what is the purpose of this thing? To bloat you! To make you swell up. To make you feel like, “I don’t need chicken and ribs.” So you won’t eat chicken and ribs. So it creates the illusion, somehow, psychosomatically, that you really had a very healthy milkshake, and you’re set for the day, when in point of fact, you’re starving to death!

Now, that is the kind of thing that happens to a congregation. They get bloated up by all this stuff, and it gives them the feeling that somehow or another they’ve had a meal, but after a few hours, they said, “You know, I don’t know whether that thing did anything at all. I could eat a horse and then come back and eat the rider.” And so, in the absence of bread, the population grows accustomed to cake.

Some years ago, I enjoyed the privilege of preaching at a place that some of you will have gone. It’s St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Nathan Road in Hong Kong. It’s an evangelical Anglican church, and they hold meetings there under the auspices of the Keswick Convention. They had a pulpit, but they never used it. And the organizers were concerned that the preachers would not be standing “six feet above contradiction.” And so they provided a little lectern like this to hold the preacher’s Bible as he spoke.

I was sharing the event with a kindly man that I had never met prior to the convention. And both of us spoke each morning. Some mornings I would preach first, and some mornings he would preach first. Whenever he began a message, he would come up, and the very first thing that he did was he would come up, and he would take the pulpit, as it was—the lectern—and he would put it over on the side, and then he would stand back, and then he would begin to talk. He didn’t want anybody thinking that he was actually delivering anything that was authoritative or provocative or profoundly impactful, but he simply wanted them to know that he was giving them a little talk, and he wanted them all to have a very nice morning. He wanted the listeners to relax—I think that’s nice—and benefit from his conversational style. And I think his motivation was absolutely wonderful.

Well, when it came my turn to preach, if I preached second, then I’d go over, I’d get the thing, I’d stand up, “And now Alistair Begg…” and I’d come over, and I’d get the thing, and I put it over like that. We come back in the evening; if my thing is still there, and Mr. So-and-So from New Zealand has stood up, then he’d get the thing, and he put it back over like that. And so it went on for five days. Every time he stood up, he moved it; every time I stood up, I put it back.

Before the week was out, two incidents occurred that I don’t think necessarily were related. First of all, I explained to the congregation that the reason I replaced the lectern each time was not simply that I might have a place for my Bible but because I did not want to forgo the symbolism of having a central pulpit, with the Word in its deserved primary place. I wanted the Bible to be absolutely central to everything that was going on, and there was a symbolism in this thing, whatever it was—I don’t care if it was a cardboard box—but it was in the middle and purposefully so. After all, I pointed out, if the preacher were to fall down or disappear, the congregation would still be left with its focus in the right place—namely, on the Scriptures. Now, the reason I said this was because I know that my colleague did not take it as a personal rebuke. I admire the man, and I don’t even want now to impinge in a negative way on what he was doing at all. It just was a difference in style.

But that’s what made the second incident all the more telling for me. A day or two later, he confided in me. We were eating in the YMCA. And he asked if he could eat with me, because he wanted to talk with me. And this is what he said: “I’ve lost any real sense of passion or power in teaching the Bible.” And I sat as a young man, probably twenty-five years his junior, and listened as he poured out his heart with tears, reflecting upon his diminished zeal.

Now, it is obviously far too simplistic to suggest that his removal of the podium each time he spoke was a symbol of a faltering conviction with regard to the priority and power of the Scriptures. But at the same time, I have a sneaking suspicion that its removal was actually simply more than a matter of style or preference.

We’re not up here to give talks. We have no reason for existence except that the Bible is a living book, sharper than a two-edged sword,[5] and that we don’t have to defend it; it can take care of itself. We simply have to lay it out for the people.

Now, let me just add to that and say that in relationship to these things, the layout of many contemporary buildings, including this building, at least flirts with the danger that men and women have come to hear from man rather than to meet with God. We build our platform areas like stages rather than like pulpits. And so I stand self-condemned when you walk through into that area there. At least I can say that we have a pulpit that is central in its place. But if you look very carefully, you’ll notice that it’s on a hydraulic and can disappear from view at the press of a button, in order that somebody can stand on top of the space that it left and do something else.

We don’t have to defend the Bible; it can take care of itself. We simply have to lay it out for the people.

It is imperative, I think, that we acknowledge and remember—and help each other to acknowledge and remember—that when we gather together as companies of God’s people, it is not to enjoy preaching eloquence or to criticize the lack thereof, but it’s to hear and to heed the Word of God. We come to be exhorted, not to be entertained. And if churches or their pastors begin to think of the place from which messages are delivered to a congregation as a stage, it is almost inevitable that caricatures of the preacher will emerge. And sadly, I want to suggest to you that that is precisely what has taken place, and that in our day the expositor of Scripture has been eclipsed by a variety of sad substitutions.

Substitutes for the Expository Preacher

Let me suggest one or two for you. Number one, the cheerleader. Instead of being a preacher, you have the cheerleader. He comes in. He’s a well-meaning fellow; he has a peculiar need to be liked and accepted. And whatever the context of his particular message, he is always going to be positively inspirational. A good Sunday for the cheerleader is one where his people laugh a lot, are affirmed and affirming, and they go away more self-assured than when they arrived. Whether they were confronted by the truth of God’s Word or humbled by God’s presence is largely lost sight of in a quest for wholeness that replaces a concern about holiness.

The cheerleader who is concerned that his people would get to know the Bible often leaves the teaching of the Bible to small groups or to home Bible studies. He simply feels that his task is to “pump them up” and to prepare them for the daunting week that awaits them as soon as they leave the building. So consequently, you find the sheep leaving the building stirred without being strengthened. And when the sugar fix that has been provided by the milkshake sermon has worn off, those with any kind of spiritual appetite find themselves in search of more substantial food for their souls. Because the proper work of the preacher has not been done.

Secondly, the conjurer. When we hear the congregation declaring, “Wasn’t it amazing what he got out of that?” we should not immediately assume that the news is good. For the little I know about magic, I’m forced to conclude that the rabbit was in there before he pulled it out of there, and the reason it got in there is because he put it in there so that he could pull it out. And there are some tremendous sermons where the reason he “got it out” is because he had previously put it in. Unfortunately, it was not the Spirit of God that put it in; it was himself, and having put it in, he felt duty bound to pull it out. And consequently, the congregation said, “Wasn’t it amazing what he got out of that?”

Now, whenever the preacher refuses to do the hard work of discovering what the text actually means in its context, when he divorces discovery and application, just about anything can be conveyed from the Bible, and very often is. And again, you see, this would be a bad thing if the congregations understood it. But many congregations have been brought up on this, and so they’ve got no idea at all that they’re not actually sitting under a biblical ministry. They think that because the Bible is referred to or there is a scant reference to the Bible every so often in between the anecdotes, that actually what’s taking place is that they are receiving biblical instruction. The man may be a conjurer.

R. W. Dale refers to this in his lectures on preaching given to the faculty and students of Yale in 1876. Amazing thought, isn’t it? That this is what Dale was saying to the Yale students a-hundred-and-twenty-some years ago:

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 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, you see, if a man does not have a solid conviction that the Word of God is powerful in and of itself, he’s gonna be forced to do something with it to try and overcome the consumer resistance which he feels is his task, you know. Because he has a product; it’s the Bible. He has a consumer; it’s the individual. And his ability is going to be seen in the way in which he can make the sale, you know.

Thirdly, the storyteller. And I’m just dealing with these arbitrarily. The storyteller. This man has convinced himself since everyone loves a good story and since people tend to be less inclined to follow the exposition of the Bible, he’ll just develop his gift for storytelling to the neglect of the hard work of biblical exposition. Now, clearly, stories were part of the teaching of Jesus. His parables, as we all learned in Sunday school, were earthly stories with heavenly meaning. But the fact that Jesus used earthly stories with heavenly meaning does not grant the contemporary preacher the license to tell stories devoid of heavenly meaning that are of no earthly use.

Now, this happens to us all. This is—and we’ll mention this later on, if there is a later on, when we talk about the way in which we illustrate. But some months ago now, I was preaching about… something in the Bible. About not being critical of one another, or something like that, or not poking your nose into other people’s affairs. And in the course of my preaching, suddenly the picture came to mind of a monkey, and of what monkeys do, you know, and that the monkeys pick each other, and it’s a distasteful thing, but they’re always poking around, and then when they find one of these things somewhere on the thing, then they pull it out, and then they show it to the person that they picked it out from. They say, they show it: “Look what I found in you,” you know. And when you see this on camera, you say, “Well, look at this filthy thing. What does it think he’s doing, picking that thing? If it could see what it looks like from the angle I’m looking at, it wouldn’t be picking any stuff.” And I said, “So this is what monkeys do.” Well, I don’t know if it was a week or two weeks, but I was passing the tape table, and I could hear somebody trying to order a tape. And the person was saying, “We want the monkey sermon, we’re looking for the monkey sermon.” So you’re killing yourself trying to teach the Bible, you know, and exegete the Scriptures, and basically, “Give us the monkey sermon!” you know?

When I was preaching on the necessity of truthfulness from the Ten Commandments, I told a story which I called “the fifty-five-dollar pizza story,” where I was tempted to tell a lie, getting stopped for speeding the second time in twenty-four hours, and I was cutting through behind Pizza Hut. And I told the people, I said, “You know, my first thought was I could say that I was going to Dunkin’ Donuts.” And so I told this story. I had a lady come up to me the other day at The Cove, said, “Oh,” she said, “if you get a chance,” she said, “tell everybody here the fifty-five-dollar pizza story!” she said. “That’s the best thing you’ve ever done.” So I thanked her, you know. I said, “Hey…”

Now, I’m telling that against myself, because we understand that in illustration, we do these things, and we’ll say more about that later. In fact, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, if you’ve read his Preaching and Preachers—which is, of course, a standard responsibility for any of us. Published in 1971 by Zondervan, which is staggering now, isn’t it? I was nineteen when it was published; I read it that year. I thought it was wonderful then, and I still think it’s fantastic. In that volume, though, he charges Scottish preachers with a similar distortion of what preaching should be. He says they have a propensity for literary flourish and expression at the expense of biblical content and substance. He goes on: “These men were endowed with a real literary gift, and the emphasis passed, unconsciously …, from the truth of the message to the literary expression. They paid great attention to literary and historical allusions and quotations …. [They] were essayists rather than preachers.”[7] Now, to the extent that that may be endemic Scottish flaw, those of you whose name begins with M-a-c should pay particular attention to it. The rest of us can proceed as normal.

I don’t want to drive you nuts with this, but what about the entertainer? The entertainer. Instead of the preacher, he decides he’s become an entertainer. Too often these days, you’re invited to preach somewhere, and no thought is given to the preacher being part of the worshipping throng. Instead, they usher you into the green room, as they call it. There you’re invited to relax “backstage” until it’s time for you to “do your thing.”

Now, I don’t want to impugn the motives of those who function in this fashion. But I do question the rightness of that procedure. Because it tends to foster an approach in the mind of the preacher which makes him something of a performer rather than a pastor, makes him something of a star rather than a worshipper, and I think it fosters an environment in which the people come to sit back and relax and to assess the performance rather than to have the heart attitude of the hymn writer, coming and saying,

Master, speak! thy servant heareth,
Waiting for thy gracious word. …

Speak to me by name, O Master,
Let me know it is to me.[8]

Now, there’s all the difference in the world between a congregation that has been schooled to think in those terms: “O God, we are now coming to an event in which you have deigned to speak through your Word. Now I ask you to speak to me. And I know that it’s Bill, or it’s Fred, or George, or whoever it is, and I know a lot about them; I know the good, and the bad, and the ugly about them. But I do know this: that you are a sovereign God and that you can use Balaam’s donkey, and therefore you can use this poor soul who’s up there this morning. So do it, Lord, to your glory and to my benefit.” There’s all the difference in the world between that and the person sitting back and saying, “Well, let’s see how well he does, you know. Let’s give him marks out of ten for length, marks out of ten for humor, marks out of ten for whatever else it is.” And as soon as a man begins to think in those terms, he’ll play to his audience. And you become an entertainer.

Between ’75 and ’77, when I was the assistant minister at Charlotte Chapel—and I tell my colleagues this; they think I’m making it up, I’m sure—in the vestry, before you went out into the pulpit, it was… I don’t know what it was like, but it was solemn. And the man who was the church secretary, Mr. Cochran, a tall gentleman, would at precise moment ask the pastor and his assistant—namely, myself—to stand. He would then reach over, and he would take the clothes brush, and he would brush the backs of our jackets and down our jackets and down our legs. Then he would have us stand, and he would look at us, and he’d say, “Fine.” He would then hang the brush back up. He would then go over to the doorway that opened into the congregation. And there’s a little keyhole in it. And as he moved the keyhole like this, he was looking across to the large clock, which was opposite the pulpit—strategically placed by a member in the congregation. It was opposite the pulpit, and he would look across to that, and he wasn’t trying to get it right within the odd five minutes. And at approximately twenty seconds to go before eleven o’clock it was in the morning and twenty seconds to go before six-thirty in the evening, he would then stand back, and he’d say, “Aha!” and he would just open the door like that. Then I would have to go in first. I would go in first—no, I beg your pardon, I tell a lie. Derek Prime would go in first—he would walk in first—he would stand to the side, he would let me mount the stairs first, and then he would follow me up, and then we would sit down together, and then we would pause in a moment of prayer.

Now, you say, “Well, that’s a bunch of formalism, you know.” But very different from the kind of “go get ’em” camaraderie stuff that pervades the last three minutes before many of us go into the pulpit. “Hey, go for it! Hey, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo!” you know. “Come on, give ’em it!” You know? Say, “What is this, a ball game or something? Do you realize what’s about to take place? Would you go in there? What do you mean ‘go for it’? Do you understand what ‘go for it’ means?” I mean, we have to train our people to get under the burden of this thing for us.

This is not… we’re not going in here to tell stories. We’re not going in here to entertain. We’re not going in here to do conjuring tricks. We’re not gonna go in there and trying to keep the congregation through another Sunday and see if we can’t do something that’ll bring them back the next Sunday. We’re going in there to say, “[Behold], the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”[9] Yeah, we better have our jackets brushed, and we better have our shoes cleaned, and we better be ready for the moment that it comes.

When you fly an aircraft off a carrier… And I was with a fellow just yesterday who, in the Vietnam War, flew on and off carriers. I asked him, “Tell me about it. Tell me how you flew down that thing to that orange ball” someone had told me about before. “How did you line that all up?” Now, do you think he was coming in going, “Hey, oh, I do like to be beside the seaside; oh, I do like to be beside the seaside”? No! He’s coming in like his life depends on it, and like everybody’s life depends on it, because it did!

And until God makes that happen in our hearts, then we’ll be content to go up there with any old thing to do, any old thing we want, and our congregation won’t even know the difference. Because the kind of food you’re brought up eating is the kind of food you grow accustomed to. And you won’t know you’ve never had a square meal until you go out to your Aunt Fannie’s house in Colorado, and she gives you something worth eating, you see. You say, “My oh my, I thought I’d been eating all these years.” You come back and tell your mother, “Aunt Fannie, she makes some wonderful meatloaf. You ought to try it sometime.”

The systematizer. I’ve only got two or three more. The systematizer. I’m referring you to the preacher who views the text of Scripture merely as the backdrop for a doctrinal lecture, who simply wants to take the Bible and use it to explain something that he just read in a fat book somewhere that really gave him a jazz—which is not illegitimate at all, but it’s not expository preaching. This is very different from the individual who in the course of exegeting a passage draws out the elements of Christian doctrine. All right? So there’s all the difference in the world between exegeting a passage and then explicating the Christian doctrine that unfolds from that. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the person whose got a bee in his bonnet about some part of Christian doctrine, and he’s gonna come and find a verse and do that with it.

While we recognize that one’s theological framework obviously affects our view of the Bible, we need to work very hard to make sure that the Scripture rules our framework and not the other way around.

One of my friends in Maybole in Ayrshire, in Scotland, years ago, when I was still there, I remember asking him, “What are you doing on Sunday evenings?” He said, “I’m preaching Calvinism to my congregation. I’m giving them the five points of Calvinism.” I think I remember saying something like, “Well, where are you preaching that from?” He essentially said, “It doesn’t really matter at all. I’m just giving them the five points of Calvinism.” Well, he gave them the five points, and he wasn’t there five minutes till they threw him out the church, and he was off down to England to try again. People are not looking for our theological frameworks; they are hungry for the Word of God.

Now, Roy Clements refers to this as “the propositional paraphrase sermon,” which he says is very likely to lack any emotional engagement with the text. Let me quote him, from “Expository Preaching in a Post-Modern World”: “There will be little sensitivity to literary genre. Apocalyptic, poetry, narrative, parable, all are flattened to the prosaic level of a theology text-book.” That is a great line. That’s exactly what I am referring to. “All are flattened to the prosaic level of a theology text-book.” You’re listening to somebody preach, and you say, “What is it about this? It’s not really stirring my heart. It’s not engaging me with the text of Scripture. It doesn’t seem to matter whether he’s in the poetry section of the Bible, whether he’s in the Prophets, or whether he’s in the Gospels or the Epistles; it all seems so prosaic and so flat.” Because, says Clements, “no attempt is made to do justice to the lyrical, dramatic, ironic aspects of the text.”[10] And we’ll come back to stuff like this.

Now, when we hear this kind of preaching, we don’t doubt its truthfulness, but we do wonder at the absence of passion. And while we recognize—and we’ll say this again—that one’s theological framework obviously affects our view of the Bible, we need to work very hard to make sure that the Scripture rules our framework and not the other way around.

Well, this is getting a little tedious, so let me just give you two more, and we’ll move on. The psychologist. This is what I call “US Airways preaching.” In the airline’s magazine, in US Airways magazine, there is a regular feature that you’ll read when you travel, provided by a psychologist. I almost always read it, and it’s almost always to my benefit. I’ve learned useful tips about bringing up my children, dealing with impatience—I haven’t applied many of them, but I’ve learned them—and I’ve been reminded also on occasion to purchase flowers for my wife before I went home from the airport. But that’s as far as it goes. And frankly, that’s as far as it should go.

Unfortunately, many contemporary pulpits are increasingly filled with pseudopsychologists, who have decided to become purveyors of “helpful insights,” most of which can be—and often are—delivered without reference to the Bible. And this is the subtlety of it. It’s not that these men are endeavoring to be bad. It’s not that they want to set aside the Bible. Indeed, if you ask them, they said, “We’re doing a very good job of teaching the Bible; we just have a kind of fill-in-the-blanks approach: ‘Seven principles for effective fathering.’ Fill in the blanks. ‘The top ten challenges facing couples today.’” And you go amongst those congregations, and you find them crying out what they were crying out on that day in Nehemiah chapter 8, where they shouted to Ezra, “Bring out the Book.”[11] “Bring out the Book. Just bring out the Book. For goodness’ sake, let us have the Bible, would you please? Because everything you just gave me, I got in the US Airways magazine. I was traveling this week, and I saw all that stuff. We must have been on the same plane, because you just gave me the same stuff. And don’t you fiddle around and lace it with a few Bible verses and make me think that you’re teaching me the Bible. You’re not teaching me the Bible.”

And then the danger of what I refer to as “naked preaching.”[12] Naked preaching. I think it’s a guy called Thielicke who says that “to preach, to really preach, is to die naked a little at a time and to know [every] time you do … that [you’re gonna have to] do it [all over] again.”[13] I’m not talking about that sense of vulnerability that is an inevitable element of just investing our lives in the teaching of the Bible, but rather the way in which the pulpit has become a place for pastors to share their faults and their foibles, you know. At an attempt at “authenticity.” You know, “I want to let my congregation know how real I am.” As if they needed to make that discovery! They’ve been with us on enough occasions to know how real we actually are. They’ve had plenty of time to recognize that both we and they are redeemed sinners. And the sermon is not usually the best place for that kind of sharing. We’ve got our hands full proclaiming the gospel, pointing to Christ, telling the story. And I want to suggest that it’s not advisable to use the time to point to ourselves and to use it to share our story.

Now, that’s enough of all of that. We could go on and talk about the politician rather than the expository preacher, the end-times guru, or the hobbyhorse rider—you know, the guy who preaches only on rock music and eschatology, you know. And it doesn’t matter, you give him any verse in the Bible—give him a verse out of Genesis, any book of the Bible—and within a moment he’s immediately at, “And I’ll tell you about that rock music, and if I hear one more of this, I’ll throw it out the window!” you know. Or whatever he says: “And that’s the reason we’re here in the end times, you know.” Say, “Guy, just expound the Bible, for goodness’ sake. This is Psalm 34: ‘Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together.’[14] How did you get eschatology out of that?” “Well, ultimately, we will exalt his name with an untrammeled…” Okay, fine.

You know Campbell Morgan’s great story about the Baptist preacher who had a fixation with baptism; he referred to it constantly. And one morning he announced his text. “My text this morning,” he says, “is Genesis 3:9, ‘Adam, where are you?’” He continued, “There are three lines we shall follow. First, where Adam was. Second, how he was to be saved from where he was. Third and last, a few words about baptism.” See, everybody’s writing in their notes, “Been there, done that, been there, done that.”

What Happened to Expository Preaching, and Why?

Now, I think I’ve set up the problem well enough to ask the question: If there is an absence of expository preaching, why is that? Why is that? What has led to that? How do we explain the dearth of expository preaching? Now, obviously, this is a vast subject. And I took my watch off and forgot to even pay any attention to it at all. Quarter to eight. We started at about five past seven, so… all right.

Let me give you one or two observations. And incidentally, in a couple of sessions’ time, we’ll have a Q and A—not so much a Q and A as just a big, gigantic rap session, you know. In which case, all the things that are just bursting in you to shout out, you can all shout them out simultaneously, and then, once we’ve got that over with, we’ll get back to business. But I’m looking forward to that.

Whatever happened to expository preaching, and why? I want to suggest to you just a couple of things.

Number one, because of a loss of confidence in the Bible. A loss of confidence in the Scriptures. I don’t think we can deny the fact that the absence of expository preaching is directly related to an erosion of confidence in both the authority and the sufficiency of Scripture. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the battle lines were drawn against the forces of liberalism, liberals were challenging the miraculous, they were questioning the divine, they were opposing the historicity of the New Testament. And evangelicals were raised up, and they weathered that storm, by and large. And today the empty liberal churches testify to the futility of the liberals’ quest for a demythologized Christ. By and large, people had said, “That is a load of bunk.” Even the average businessman said, “That’s nonsense. That’s bogus. I’m going golfing. If he doesn’t believe it, you can be dead sure I’m not believing it. And I’m not going to go and sit in there and listen to with you, Mary, while that man dribbles down his chin.” And so they have essentially given up on it. So we read the books like The Battle for the Bible and all those things where all the forces of evangelicalism and conservative scholarship stood up and said, “Now here’s a great demon, and we must fight this.” And it was fought.

So is the battle for the Bible over with Harold Lindsell’s book? Now, I want to suggest to you the battle for the Bible is a far more subtle battle today than ever it was when the forces of liberalism came jumping over the counter to say, “Jesus did not walk on water, and the resurrection is a myth.” Because the battle for the Bible today is not a battle with liberals; it’s a battle with conservatives. It’s a battle with people in our own ranks who sign the same doctrinal statements and who by their very commitment or their very lack of commitment call in question whether they believe this Bible is absolutely authoritative and absolutely sufficient.

You go to colleges that are ostensibly Christian schools and listen to the kind of things that are fed up in Christian doctrine. It’s not unusual for the kids to be taught in a New Testament doctrine class, immediately, the mythology of the intertestamental period, and then as soon as they move from the intertestamental period, the first thing that they are taught about is the Q source and the whole question of redaction criticism. And these are eighteen-year-old students, in an avowedly Christian school, having their convictions about the Bible undermined by people who are like wolves in sheep’s clothing. We didn’t send them there to learn this, but this is what they’re learning. They come to church, and they hear people saying the right thing and using the right phraseology. But when you talk to the man on his own over breakfast, he says, no, he doesn’t actually believe in the actual literal resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, but he does believe that Jesus is alive in the lives of his followers and so on, and so he just keeps using the same terminology.

The Scriptures are abased, neglected, debased, used as a springboard for talks that are far removed from genuine biblical exposition. It’s very possible to attend a service of worship in an avowedly evangelical congregation and find that if the Bible is read or referred to at all—and there is no guarantee it will be—it is weightless in its influence because of the inadequate presentation or emphasis. There is little sense of any notion of the preacher or the congregation bowing beneath the majesty of God’s authoritative Word. ’Cause we live in a time when being unclear and vague is in vogue. There is a contemporary distrust for anyone or anything who is assured or authoritative. Young pastors, I think, are often intimidated in such an environment, and consequently begin to preach sermons that have their genesis in what people want to hear rather than in what God has chosen to say and command.

Dick Lucas—and I had to mention him sooner or later—the pastor of St Helen’s Bishopsgate church in London, highlighted the danger in this approach when he said at one of the pastors’ conferences, “The pew cannot control the pulpit. We cannot deliver demand-led preaching, because no one demands the gospel.”

And so the exposition of Scripture is undermined. Now, it is being undermined—and this is what makes it so grave and so sore to our hearts—by good guys, who are either oblivious to it or naive to it.

Exposition of Scripture is also undermined by a fascination with the so-called extrabiblical prophetic word. Right? The people say, “Well, I know, Pastor, that you have a Bible, and I know you know a lot of verses in the Bible because you’ve studied it a lot, but I have a very pressing problem, and I wonder if you couldn’t just give me a word directly from God, and please don’t use the Bible. I’d like to have just a straight, you know, a straight shot.”

Now, I was brought up under the instruction of a man who was a very able Bible expositor. He’d been trained as a scientist and then in theology. But the last time I heard of him—and it’s some time since I heard of him—he was speaking at conferences where, having read from the Bible, he would then actually literally take his Bible and close it and set it to one side, and then he would say, “This is what God is saying now.” And then he would proceed to give his statements, apparently directly from God. And whatever that was about, what he was doing, willfully or unwittingly, was actually removing the Scriptures from their place of authority and sufficiency in the minds of his listeners.

Now, I know we may differ on some of these things. I found Sinclair Ferguson’s book on the Holy Spirit, published in 1996 by InterVarsity Press, very helpful on this subject. He doesn’t deal with it in depth, but he says, for example, “While it is denied that additions are being made to the canon of Scripture”—when people give extrabiblical prophetic words—“while it is denied that additions are being made to the canon of Scripture, it is nevertheless implied that an actual addition is being made to the canon of living. Otherwise, the illumination of Scripture and the wisdom to apply it would be sufficient.”[15] Now, you’re sensible people; you’re gonna have to think this out.

A loss of confidence in Scripture, revealed in its absence of proclamation, revealed in the interest that people have in the extrabiblical notions, and in the same way, a preoccupation with psychological theory has in many cases eroded confidence in the Scriptures. When the essence of the human predicament is redefined in terms in a lack of self-esteem, it is almost inevitable that people would be directed towards a couch but not to a cross. They will be sent to a psychologist but not to a Savior. And if you doubt the extent to which that has happened, then you only need to listen to the strange blends of psychology and theology, much of which is offered up as attempts at expository preaching.

So why, then, would people quit on expository preaching? Well, because of a loss of confidence in the Bible.

Secondly, because they’ve started to fight the wrong battles. You see, when a pastor becomes convinced that the central issue facing the church is political or psychological rather than theological, exposition will be forsaken in the favor of political speeches or a call to “wage war” for “the soul of the nation.” Does a nation have a soul? I know what it means, but I’m not sure it’s accurate. What are we called to wage war for? The souls of men and women, irrespective of the political climate in which they live. Whether they’re under the burden of a Daoist regime, whether they’re living in Albania under the curse of atheistic communism, whether they’re under the environment of a rampant capitalism, what they need is to hear from God concerning where they stand in relationship to God. But when a man loses that focus, then he’ll be tempted to mobilize his congregation to vote rather than to pray. They’ll be mobilized not on the basis of a divine mandate but on the strength of a human agenda.

When a pastor becomes convinced that the central issue facing the church is political or psychological rather than theological, exposition will be forsaken in the favor of political speeches or a call to ‘wage war’ for ‘the soul of the nation.’

And I don’t want to be unkind, but I’ve lived through seventeen years of this now, and I don’t see it abating hardly at all. In fact, here we go again. Hastening towards November, we’re gonna get the same stuff thrown at us by all of our well-meaning friends. They’re gonna tell us the future of the world hangs on this, and if you don’t fix this and do this and write there and phone there and get your congregation to do the same, then woe! You know, God is gonna be very upset, and frankly, he’s just worried about what might happen with Mr. So-and-So. And it’s so dreadful, man-centered theology. But whether it is X or Y who finally reappears in January of next year, what do we know? That the people who live next door to us still have a never-dying soul, have an appointment with Jesus Christ that we may fail to address by giving up the proclaiming of the gospel for the mobilizing of a political army. And that’s the issue.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, preaching in Canada in 1 Thessalonians 1:5—he managed to get this out of 1 Thessalonians 1:5, for those of you who extol him as the great expositor:

The thing that makes the Christian message a Gospel is that it is a proclamation of the good news.

It is not just topical comments on the latest scandal in the newspaper or the latest bits of news. It is not that we spend our time in telling kings and princes and presidents and prime ministers how they ought to be running their countries and how they ought to be solving the international problem. We are not qualified to do so. …

What was it … the Apostle preached about? Did the Apostle preach politics to these people? Did he say to them … it is … time you bandied yourselves together and raised an army to rid yourselves of the yoke of the Roman Empire? Did he object to taxation? Did he protest against the various things that were happening? That was not his message at all.[16]

And this just seems so obvious to me: that what we have to go on is apostolic precept and apostolic practice. That the question is not “What would Jesus do?” I like that, it’s, “Oh!” Everyone’s pushing their bracelet a little further… Why not? Because we have to read the Gospels in light of the Acts and the Epistles. And we know what Jesus would do only as it is interpreted for us by the apostles, who have written down the Epistles so that we would be able to understand the revelation of Christ that we have in the Gospel records themselves. For example, you can’t build a doctrine of the atonement just out of the Gospels. You need the Epistles. See, the question “What would Jesus do?”—we don’t know the answer to half of those questions. How are we supposed to be able to determine what it is we’re supposed to do? By reading the Bible.

And when Jesus promises to his disciples, who have forgotten half of what he had taught them, that the Holy Spirit will come and remind them of the things they’ve forgotten—the people get that now and they go, “Oh, Jesus is going to remind us of everything we’ve forgotten!” No, he didn’t say that. He didn’t say that to you, cloth ears! He said that to the apostles! He said that to the apostles! What have you forgotten that he told you about? Nothing, ’cause he never told you about anything! He told the apostles about stuff, and they forgot. And he says, “Now I’m gonna send the Holy Spirit, and he’ll remind you, and he’ll lead you into all truth.”[17] How do we know all truth? In the apostolic record. We don’t know all truth by going under a tree and dreaming it up. No! It is only as we have it in the Scriptures. That is why when people say, “Well, you just don’t understand,” maybe I don’t, but if I’m going to err on one side, I’m going to err on the side of apostolic precept and apostolic practice. You know, if it’s good enough for the apostle Paul, it’s good enough for me. A bit like what people say about the King James Version of the Bible, you know.

Well, this really is a passion for me now, when I wake up and lie down and sleep. Young men beginning pastoral ministry are besieged by members of their congregation wanting them, urging them, demanding them, to begin their sermons with man and his need rather than God and his glory. And they are asking for what they don’t need. What they need is not what they want. And brethren, we’re gonna have to be bold in these days. Kind, but bold. Because just like our children are daft, so, without demeaning our congregations, a lot of them are daft as well. And you have been given as a gift by Christ himself to the church as a pastor-teacher. You are a gift to the church. They don’t pay you to preach! They couldn’t pay you enough to preach. They couldn’t pay you too little that would stop you preaching. They want to give you money, that’s fine, but you’re gonna preach. As one of the guys said—who was it, Gypsy Smith or something?—he says, “You put me in a barrel, I’ll shout glory to God out of the bung hole!” you know.[18] Said, fine.

Well, let’s just do one more, because I can tell a number of you are well gone. Why is there an absence? Well, one, because of a loss of confidence in the Scriptures. (And this is obviously selective; this is not exhaustive. It may be exhausting you, but it’s not an exhaustive list.) A loss of confidence in the Bible, suckered into fighting the wrong battles, and thirdly, a lack of excellent role models. A lack of excellent role models.

Now, clearly, nobody’s going to say there are none, because there are. But there aren’t many. And the question that’s asked me when I—and I’m sure you find you’re asked the same questions when you go and speak at some of these seminaries now, and the faculty of practical theology (as opposed to the faculty of impractical theology) sits down with you at lunch and says, “Can you help us? We have a problem.” This has happened to me on three separate occasions now. “Can you help us? We have a problem. We’re teaching our students exegesis. We’re trying to teach them how to be scholarly with the Word and effective with the Bible. And yet, within a few months of most of them leaving, no matter how much we’ve tried to drum into them, they get into pastoral situations where they seem to be enamored with dramatic success stories that are driven more by the market than by apostolic pattern. And consequently, they tend to adopt models that are introducing them into all kinds of approaches which, whatever else they are about, are certainly not about teaching the Bible in an expository fashion.”

Now, before we jump to immediately condemn those who have become engaged in this way, we need to recognize that such ministries are taking seriously the need to engage the contemporary culture, which is a worthy intention; indeed, it’s a vital aspect of what we do. But the point of weakness is in beginning at that point. Because to begin at that point allows the culture rather than the Bible to establish and control our proclamation. That’s the subtlety in it. You know, like the young guy, the Anglican, writes to his bishop, and he said, “I started a series in Mark’s Gospel. Not many people were coming, and the other evening there was a dreadful flood in our town, and so I put on the noticeboard on Saturday night, ‘Why the Flood Came to Birmingham,’ you know. And it was a great and wonderful success. So I was wondering, Bishop, if you think I ought to stick with Mark’s Gospel or just do something else?” And the bishop wrote back and said, “Well, if you wait for the floods, you’ll be rather scanty in your material, but if you stick with Mark, you’ll always have something to say.” And if we constantly allow the preoccupations of the world to be the launching pad for our preaching, we will miss many vital things that God desires to say to us.

Now, on the other side of the fence—and I’m talking now about an approach to exposition that we’ll come back to tomorrow, because this all begs the question, What is expository preaching? And, you know, who knows? The Lord may come back before I have to answer that question. But we can live in hope. So you’ve got one group of people who are seeking immediately to engage the contemporary culture with scant reference to the Bible. And then on the other hand, you’ve got a group of individuals who are very committed to the faithful exposition of the Scripture, but they’re so horribly buried in the text, so completely divorced from the culture, that they can’t even make any impact at all.

So this is what you’ve got, these two dreadful extremes. And you’ve got people running from church to church. And it’s polarized: “Well, we can either go over here, where it starts off, you know, with [singing], you know. Say, ‘Hey, good morning and thank you for coming! We’re glad to see you!’ Or you come over here, you say, ‘The Holy Bible and the Holy Bible, and the Bible, and the Holy, Holy Bible, and the Bible, and the Holy Bible, and the Bible, and…’” So you got one group over here that’re just dying under the weight of all this information that’s been shoveled on their heads. You’ve got another group over here who are doing nothing with the Bible at all, and the people are all going around like this. And neither of the two are doing biblical exposition—not even this guy. He may think he is. He may be doing exegesis. He isn’t doing exposition.

The expositor is not a poet moving his listeners by cadence or by imagery, nor is he an author reading from a manuscript. He is a herald speaking by the strength and authority of heaven.

Now, we’ll get to that tomorrow, and that’s enough to keep some of you up, getting annoyed, which is fine. I like that. And I think one of the reasons—drawing this to a close—for disinterest in expository preaching is surely that so many attempts at it prove lifeless and dull, and even thoroughly boring. In fact, I think that’s one of the reasons for the disinterest in preaching, because there’s so much bad preaching. And we’re the problem, guys. Doesn’t it amaze you at the ingenuity of the—let’s just say, “our ingenuity.” I was gonna say, “the ingenuity of others,” but let’s just say, shouldn’t we be amazed at our ingenuity? That we’re capable of taking the powerful, life-changing text of Scripture and communicating it with all the passion of someone that’s readin’ aloud from the Yellow Pages. Right? That we can take this glorious, unbelievable message and come across so lifeless and so dull.

Calvin said of God’s work in preaching, “He deigns to consecrate … the mouths and tongues of men” to his service, making his own voice to be heard in them. [19] “Whenever God is pleased to bless their labour, he makes their doctrine efficacious by the power of his Spirit; and the voice which in itself is mortal, is made an instrument to communicate eternal life.”[20]

Now, you see, that establishes the immeasurable significance of the preacher’s task, and yet at the same time gives to us the antidote to pride. Because the preacher is God’s servant, submitting to and proclaiming the text of Scripture. The passage itself is the voice, the speech, of God; the preacher is the mouth and the lips; and the congregation, the ear in which the voice sounds. And the expositor is not a poet moving his listeners by cadence or by imagery, nor is he an author reading from a manuscript. He is a herald speaking by the strength and authority of heaven. Fifty years ago, James S. Stewart, the Scottish Presbyterian, said—I think it’s probably true today—“The disease of modern preaching is its search after popularity.”[21]

Now, let me just bleed into tomorrow. Expository preaching means at least this: unfolding the text of Scripture in a way that makes contact with the listener’s world while exalting Christ and confronting them with the need for action. And we need to carefully identify and emulate role models in this noble pursuit.

Well, you’ve been very patient, and I don’t think I’ll go any further than that. Let’s just pause and pray together:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my [anxious] thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me.”[22] Father, I think it’s true for each of us that we see our own sins most clearly in other people. Far easier for me to point the finger and find the storytellers, and forget about the times that I’ve plugged up holes in my preparation with stories that really were a rabbit trail to nowhere. So we do pray that you will save us from taking the high ground that looks down on others and seeks to exalt ourselves by diminishing them and their role. Instead, help us to take the low ground, the ground that’s at your cross, that we might bow down before you afresh and say, “Lord Jesus Christ, we thank you for the immense privilege of knowing you and being called to serve you. And we pray that as long as you give us breath and health, that we might be enabled to tell out the greatness of the gospel.”

We pray, O God, that you will use the hours that we have together in these couple of days, both in personal conversation and private prayer, even in our comings and goings as well as in the different talks, to forge again within us deep convictions concerning our desire to be strange men in a strange place proclaiming “the unsearchable riches of Christ.”[23] For it’s in his name we pray. Amen.


[1] James W. Alexander, Thoughts on Preaching: Being Contributions to Homiletics (1864; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1975), 240.

[2] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, ed. William Brown (London: The Religious Tract Society, n.d.), 114–15.

[3] Romans 10:14–15 (NIV 1984).

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

[5] See Hebrews 4:12.

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

[7] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (1971; repr., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), 15.

[8] Frances Ridley Havergal, “Master, Speak! Thy Servant Heareth” (1867).

[9] John 1:29 (NIV 1984).

[10] Roy Clements, “Expository Preaching in a Post-Modern World” (address, National Preaching Conference, Florida, 1996).

[11] Nehemiah 8:1 (NIV 1984).

[12] See William H. Willimon, “Naked Preachers Are Distracting,” Christianity Today, April 6, 1998, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1998/april6/8t4062.html.

[13] Bruce W. Thielemann, The Wittenburg Door 36 (April–May 1977), quoted in Joseph M. Stowell, “Why I Love to Preach,” in The Moody Handbook of Preaching, ed. John Koessler (Chicago: Moody, 2008), 69.

[14] Psalm 34:3 (NIV 1984).

[15] Sinclair Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 231–32.

[16] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “Not in Word Only,” in Tony Sargent, The Sacred Anointing: The Preaching of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), 264, 267–68.

[17] John 14:26; 16:13 (paraphrased).

[18] F. W. Bourne, The King’s Son; or, A Memoir of Billy Bray, 8th ed. (London: Bible Christian Book-Room, 1874), 50. Paraphrased.

[19] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 2:1018.

[20] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, trans. John Owen (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1855), 60.

[21] Charles Gore, quoted in James S. Stewart, Heralds of God (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1946), 29.

[22] Psalm 139:23–24 (KJV).

[23] Ephesians 3:8 (NIV 1984).

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.