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What Happened to Expository Preaching? (Part 1 of 2)

Truth for Life / Alistair Begg
The Truth Network Radio
October 11, 2022 4:00 am

What Happened to Expository Preaching? (Part 1 of 2)

Truth for Life / Alistair Begg

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October 11, 2022 4:00 am

It’s possible to eat a lot yet remain malnourished, because not all food is nutritious. It’s similarly possible to be spiritually starved even if you attend church regularly. What’s missing? Find out when you listen to Truth For Life with Alistair Begg.


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Alistair Begg
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Alistair Begg
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Alistair Begg

Music playing... Not all food is nutritious. Well, today on Truth for Life, we'll hear a similar illustration that explains how it's also possible to be spiritually malnourished, even if you attend church regularly. Alistair Begg asks the important question, what happened to expository preaching?

Music playing... I was born, as some of you will have realized, in Scotland, and I have vivid recollections of church in Scotland. 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. 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 40 years ago. And that is that at about five or six minutes to 11, before the commencement of the morning service, 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 a 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.

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 are sent, as it is written how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news. Now about 50 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. Today, 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 a 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. 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 than 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. 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 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'd put it over like that. We'd come back in the evening, if my thing is still there, and Mr. So-and-so stood up, and he'd get the thing, and he'd 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 forego 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. He and I, 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 instant 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 25 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.

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. 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 is 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.

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, quote, 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 Judy 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? 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 goldfish 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. 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 going to 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 that 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. 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 it. 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 they 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.

Now, I'm telling that against myself, because we understand that in illustration, we do these things, and we'll see more about that later. In fact, Martin 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 Zonderman, which is staggering now, isn't it? I was 19 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.

Now, to the extent that that may be an endemic Scottish flaw, those of you whose name ends with MAC 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. You're invited to relax, quotes, backstage until it's time for you to, quotes, do your thing, close quotes.

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 worshiper, 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 hard 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. Now, there's all of 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 by 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 he'll 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 would, at a 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 a 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 it approximately made 20 seconds to go before 11 o'clock it was in the morning, and 20 seconds to go before 6.30 in the evening. He would then stand back and he'd say, Aha. And he would just open the door like that. 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.

Actually, I had a bunch of formalism, you know. But very different from the kind of go-get-him camaraderie stuff that pervades the last three minutes before many of us go into the pulpit. Hey, go for it. Hey, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh. You know, come on, give them it, you know. So 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. 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 going to go in there and try to keep the congregation through another Sunday and see if we can do something that will 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. No, we better have our jackets brushed, and we better have our shoes cleaned, and we better be ready for the moment that it comes. 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 fat 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 place where we find real spiritual nourishment is in Bible-based, Christ-focused, life-changing preaching.

We're listening to Truth for Life. That's Alistair Begg exhorting pastors to focus on preaching rather than performing. If you're a pastor, we want to recommend to you an assortment of books, series, and articles to help you with Christ-centered preaching, with the challenges of church leadership, and your personal devotional life. Visit slash pastor to browse recommended books or studies, articles specifically prepared for you as you serve in ministry. And if you'd like to support your pastor or your church elders during Pastor Appreciation Month, all of the books and audio studies found at slash pastor make great gifts. Your pastor will appreciate the encouragement. And if you'd like to show appreciation to the wives of your church leaders as well, we want to recommend to you a book titled Partners in the Gospel. This is a devotional written by author and pastor's wife, Megan Hill. This is the last week we're offering Partners in the Gospel. So be sure to request the book when you give a donation.

Go to slash donate. By the way, it's not too early to start thinking about a summer vacation next summer and book your cabin on the deeper faith 2023 Mediterranean cruise. Alistair will be the guest speaker on the cruise. It starts in Rome, Italy.

It stops in a different port each day, including Malta, Greece, Croatia and Slovenia. Visit for more information. I'm Bob Lapine. Why is it so many contemporary pastors have veered away from expository preaching? Alistair looks at the answer tomorrow. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life, where the Learning is for Living.
Whisper: medium.en / 2022-12-19 19:50:30 / 2022-12-19 20:00:26 / 10

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