Why is it so many contemporary pastors have veered away from expository preaching? Has God's Word lost its place in today's worship services?
Alistair Begg offers answers to these questions. Today on Truth for Life. 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 is to hear and to heed the Word of God. We come to be exhorted, not to be entertained.
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. Let me suggest one or two for you. Number one, the cheerleader. Secondly, the conjurer. Thirdly, the storyteller. 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. The systematizer.
I've only got two or three more. The systematizer. I'm referring here 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 fact book somewhere that really gave him a jazz, which is not legitimate 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 who's got to be in his bonnet about some part of Christian doctrine, and he's going to come and find a verse and do that with it. 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. The psychologist. This is what I call US Airways preaching. In the airline's magazine, in US Airways magazine, there's a regular feature that you'll read when you travel provided by a psychologist. It's actually, 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 from 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 pseudo-psychologists 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 eight, where they shouted to Ezra, bring out the book. 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 USA 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. Naked preaching.
I think it's a guy called Philike 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 going to have to do it all over again. 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. 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, 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?
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 19th 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 would say, that is a load of bunk. Even the average businessmen say, 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 with you, Mary, while that man dribbles down his chin. And so, they have essentially given up on it. Now, I want to suggest to you that 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. 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.
Because 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. Helens 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 extra-biblical prophetic word. Right? 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 can 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 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 extra-biblical 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. 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 are a call to wage war for, quote, 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 Taoist 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. Martin 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 stole them 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 banded 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. 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?
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 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'd forgotten. But people get that now, and they go, oh, well, 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, because he never told you about anything. He told the apostles about stuff, and they forgot. And he says, now I'm going to send the Holy Spirit, and he'll remind you. And he'll lead you into all truth. How do we know all truth? In the apostolic records. 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 is good enough for me. A bit like what people say about the King James Version of the Bible.
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 going to 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 going to preach. This is one of the guys who was a gypsy smith or something. He says, you put me in a barrel, I'll shout, glory to God, out of the bunghole.
He said, fine. Well, 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, 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, says—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 notice board 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 we'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 where 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, you know, say, hey, good morning, and thank you for coming.
We're glad to see you. Or you come over here and say, the Holy Bible and the Holy Bible and the Bible and the Holy Bible and the Bible and the Holy Bible and the Bible. So you've got one group over here, they'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 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. 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 are the problem, guys. Doesn't it amaze you at the ingenuity of, let's just say our ingenuity, I was going to 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 reading aloud from the yellow pages?
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. Whenever God is pleased to bless their labor, 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.
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. 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. It is every pastor's job to expound the Bible and to point people to Jesus. We're listening to Truth for Life, that is Alistair Begg reminding us of the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. If you are in ministry and would like to get back to the essentials of preaching God's Word, each year Alistair hosts a conference at Parkside Church specifically for pastors and church leaders. The conference is called Basics, and if you were unable to attend Basics 2022 back in May, you can listen to or watch all of the presentations from Alistair, from the guests John Woodhouse and Toni Morita. All of the conference sessions can be viewed for free at basicsconference.org. You can also listen to other Basics Conferences from the past going all the way back to 2002.
Visit basicsconference.org slash archives to watch or listen to as many of these as you'd like. Here at Truth for Life, we believe that God's Word is infallible and eternal. As we learned in today's message, people are hungry for the Word of God, and that's why every day we teach God's Word with the expectation that God will work through His Word to convert unbelievers, to establish believers, and encourage pastors so that local churches will be strengthened. We hope this has been your experience as you listen each day. Now along with Alistair's messages, we love to recommend books to help you grow in your faith. And because it is Pastor Appreciation Month, today we are featuring a book called Partners in the Gospel. This is a collection of devotions for the wives of pastors and elders. Be sure to request the book Partners in the Gospel when you give a donation today at truthforlife.org slash donate. I'm Bob Lapine. Where can we find good role models for effective preaching? Tomorrow Alistair takes us on an historical journey through the church's rich heritage. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life, where the Learning is for Living.
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