Listen as D. A. Carson speaks with Mark Dever on the topic of church issues in this address from The Gospel Coalition Sermon Library.
Mark Dever: My questions largely centered around preaching, which is no surprise.
Question: Can true expository preaching lead to topical preaching?
Mark: Well, I’m not sure I understand the question, but I guess most charitably I would say, yes, in the sense that if you’re handling God’s Word, certainly topics are going to be addressed in any passage that you are preaching on; therefore, it wouldn’t be surprising listening to Don preach on John 1:1–18 that you could carve out a good 5 minutes on the relationship of Moses and the law to Christ. You could call that a topical part. So if that’s what you mean, yes.
Do you mean that.… If expositional preaching matures then eventually you’ll get into doing topical preaching? I don’t think so. I think topical preaching is something that’s always a good secondary kind of thing for us to do sometimes, as we know our congregations that the Lord has called us to and as we see particular needs that could be best addressed by it.
Question: What is the best way of handling a situation where the pastor is not preaching expositionally and the more mature Christians are not being fed?
Mark: Well, basically I would try to find a church where there is expositional preaching. Now if you’ve got a young pastor and you have a good relationship with him and he’s teachable, great. If there is no other Bible-believing church in the town, brothers and sisters, you don’t have to have expositional preaching to be a Christian. You have to believe the gospel.
You can hear that through 10 very faithful topical preachers, but you’ll give account to God for your own discipleship. For me, with whatever time the Lord gives me on this earth, if I get the choice to hear an expositional preaching ministry being poured into my life regularly, all other things being equal, that’s what I’ll take, but obviously in an individual situation, there could be many other circumstances, no doubt some of which will be represented to me at the break.
Don Carson: The three questions that have come to me are all of a narrow exegetical sort. From John, chapter 1, verse 9. The NIV has, “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.”
Question: Will it not be correct to read this verse without was? What difference will it make?
Don: The difference it makes is that the modifier coming into the world then applies to every man; it doesn’t apply to Christ. The whole previous sentence can be recast a bit: “… gives light to every man coming into the world.” So that the one who’s coming into the world, then, is every person rather than Christ.
It’s true that the was is absent, but copulative verbs in Greek, verbs like to be, are often missing and have to be read in. That’s just typical of Hellenistic Greek in particular, and so its absence does not by itself signify anything.
What stands against that sort of reading here, however, is important; namely, again and again and again in John’s gospel, Jesus is the one who is presented as coming into the world, as coming into the world, as coming into the world. There is no unambiguous passage where ordinary people are described as those coming into the world. It sounds far too weighty with too much freight. So it seems to me the traditional exegesis is intrinsically far more likely.
Mark: Here was what I thought a remarkably humble question.
Question: What word can you give to those of us who are trapped by habit or culture to preach topically and shortly and then do a lot of worship and singing?
Mark: First of all, just to be clear that we agree that the center part of worship is hearing and heeding God’s Word. I’ve often told the story of a time when I was in London doing a workshop on English Puritanism. That’s what my academic work was in. I was explaining how Puritan theology even affected the architecture of the church buildings.
At one point I said, “Did you ever travel around some of the churches in east Anglia and see this piece of metal come out of the side of the pulpit be turned up and then have a circle right here?” And a few hands went up. I said, “Anybody have any idea what that is?” Nobody knew. You see, that was an hourglass holder.
It was a gift of the congregation to the preacher. It would have been in the late 1500s, early 1600s, and it was to hold the hourglass so that he could have one or two turns of the hourglass for his sermon. When I said that one person audibly gasped, and she shouted out, “What time did that leave for worship?”
To which I responded, “Well, you have to realize that if this is the 1570s or 1580s, there could well be people sitting there who sadly could remember the smell of burning flesh because people had tried to translate the Bible into their own language that they could hear and understand. So they would have thought it a high privilege to be able to hear God’s Word read and preached in their own language, and they would have understood the absolute center part, the climax, of their worship was getting to hear God’s Word and respond to it.”
Not that there would have been no singing, not that they would have not celebrated the Lord’s Supper, but I think we have to understand fundamentally preaching is part of worship, and that’s why we would like it to be expositional. We would like it to come from Scripture. Now, again, I want to be fair, and I tried to say this in the talk. A topical sermon can certainly be biblical, so brother, I don’t mean to heap condemnation on your head for preaching topically, particularly if you’ve been preaching the truth.
I would just encourage you to start with, maybe, a short series. First Peter is a marvelous book. It applies well. Your congregation will enjoy it. Topics are addressed. Take the book of 1 Peter, divide it into five or ten natural parts as you can see in an outline. Run the outline past two or three of your elders or other mature Christians in your congregation, maybe a brother preacher somewhere else, and then go back and try with your congregation to preach these sermons.
I don’t know if you’ve been preaching 15 or 20 minutes, but try to preach 20 to 25. I don’t think the longer the better. I think different preachers are gifted to preach different lengths. Different congregations will tolerate different lengths of sermons. So wherever you are, wherever any of us are, we should constantly be trying to do a better job of hueing closer to preaching God’s Word. So that would be one practical way you could get started, and I just want to commend you for the humility of that question.
Question: What is the place of worship if the ordained preacher must stand and deliver and there is no need for anyone else to take part?
Mark: Well, I think I just partly answered that, but I’m not saying by that there’s nothing else that happens in the service. I think we’re commanded in Scripture to sing, to pray, to have Scripture read, to have the Lord’s Supper, to celebrate baptism; so there are other things that certainly should be going on.
Question: Does this not lead to immaturity on the part of the members who are being spoon-fed?
Mark: Well, again, I don’t think you have to participate in publically leading the service in order to mature. I think there is absolutely no requirement of that whatsoever.
Question: Can it be a maturing thing to help lead the congregation in worship?
Mark: Yes, but I assume a small minority of the congregation will ever have that experience, but they’ll still mature in Christ. I’ll happily talk to you more about that afterwards.
Question: This one is from the other end of John’s gospel. John, chapter 20, the well-known passage where Christ breathes on them, we’re told (John 20:22) after the resurrection and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Is there not the possibility to see in John 20:22 with reference to the Greek for “he breathed” in the light of the creation motif referred to in John 1:1–3? That is to say, the same verb is used in Genesis 2:7, where he breathed into their nostrils the breath of life.
Don: Just barely, but only just barely. When I said earlier today that there is no development of the theme of creation in the book, I would still stand by that. This is a possible allusion; that’s not exactly the development of a theme. But also, the Greek LXX, the Septuagintal Greek of Genesis 2:7 really does have “He breathed into their nostrils the breath of life.” Whereas here, strictly speaking, the Greek does not have, “He breathed on them,” the on them is assumed from the context.
It’s even possible to read that verse to mean something like, “He exhaled,” despite the way the verb is formed. When you actually see its usage throughout the LXX, it can simply be rendered, “He exhaled.” It becomes a kind of symbol-laden act. “He exhaled,” and he said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
So you’ve got some sort of breakdown in comparison when you have breathed on them versus breathed in his nostrils. The on them isn’t even there. Now I’m not saying it has to be taken that way. You can assume that the on them is present, but on the other hand, the parallel with Genesis 2:7 is not very strong.
If the writer of John had wanted you to have a really strong allusional connection with Genesis 2:7, there were lots of ways he could have done to do it by simply having a much longer clip in so that you have a direct quotation, but when you don’t have the direct quotation with a long enough clip to be sure that there’s an allusion, then it’s a little harder to be clear that’s what’s in the author’s mind when he says that sort of thing.
A lot of people have made the suggestion that there is a connection back there, and I’m not denying there’s a possibility, all I’m saying is it’s not strong enough to be dogmatic about it, and it still isn’t a highly developed theme in John.
Question: Please comment and critique biblically the philosophy in Natural Church Development by Christian Schwarz. This has, unfortunately, been included as part of the curriculum of a local Baptist training college and has begun to be actively promoted in South Africa as the means to good church health and growth.
Mark: I don’t know Mr. Schwarz personally. I would never encourage anyone to read his book. It is full of diagrams and sloppy use of the Bible. I would say he practically must have a low view of Scripture, at least in practice. He may affirm inerrancy, I don’t know, but he does not go to Scripture for his principles.
He has what he calls the biotic principle in which he looks at literally how a seed in the ground grows, and then he infers a lot from that. There is one section in there where he has 25 pages full of diagrams, no references to Scripture, and he also has a tendency to refer to orthodoxy as something sort of negative and as opposed to spiritual vitality.
So are there true things in the book? Yeah. Would I encourage you to read it? No. Would I encourage anyone to read to it? Only to write a review for 9marks.org. And in fact, someone already has and has written it and tonight if you have Internet access you can go read a full review of the book at 9marks.org. I think I gave a good summary of what the reviewer will say.
Question: There are those who hear God’s Word and respond, and there are those who do not respond. Is it not so that in the latter case, there are those who do not hear and, therefore, do not respond? It seems that along with the promise comes the opening of the ear to hear the voice of the Son of God.
Mark: If I understand what you’re getting at, and Don will follow up on this one, too, before he goes to his next one, I agree with you entirely. Certainly the Holy Spirit of God does have to be operative, active, in opening up the ear so that we can hear God’s Word.
Don: Amen. Now we come to Matthew’s gospel. Matthew, chapter 18, the well-known passage of verses 15 and following. “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.
But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church …” Here’s the crucial bit. “… treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” And the question is …
Question: Traditionally this passage is interpreted about church discipline, and “treat him as a pagan” is usually interpreted as the activity of the church. Leon Morris in the Pillar New Testament Commentary points out that this is given as second person singular and, therefore, the action of the offended brother. Please comment.
Don: I’m not sure if somebody is getting at me because I edit that series. Maybe nobody is quite that complicated, but Leon Morris is a dear friend who recently has gone to his reward, so whatever his exegetical decisions in certain areas might be, they have probably been improved in recent weeks. I’m sure that all of us will have improved theology shortly after death.
This particular commentary was written before the Pillar series as such was invented. I have to tell you how this series came about. There were two or three commentaries that were published as independent volumes. Leon’s on Matthew was one of them, Philip Hughes’ on Revelation was another, and mine on John.
At that point, there was no Pillar series, but these were published by Eerdmans, so they wanted some sort of cover that was different from other series. They had a kind of pillar on the front of it, so they published them as independent commentaries. That’s all, but mine took off reasonably well, so Eerdmans (not from probably the most profound spiritual reasons, but simply because it was selling well) said, “Don, how would you like to turn that one into a series?” I said, “On condition that I can define what goes into the series from now on.”
So as a result, then, the Pillar series was invented, and that has given us volumes like Peter O’Brien on Ephesians, which in my judgment is the best commentary on the book of Ephesians in the English language today. Others have come out, and others more will come. Peter has just about finished another one on the epistle to the Hebrews, and quite a number of others have come out. The one on Mark, I think, is also a very, very good volume by James Edwards.
But that meant that there were two or three that had the same sort of cover that are still considered part of the Pillar series that were not defined by the series, and I had absolutely no editorial input or check on it at all. So although I’ve skimmed through Leon’s commentary, I don’t remember what he says on this passage, and I don’t have a copy with me.
On the other hand, it is true to say there is a second person singular here, but that means, I think, that the flow is something like this: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church, and if he refuses to listen even to the church, you …” Second person singular. “… treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
The idea, I think, is that the confrontation has been ratcheted up until there is church discipline, and the church discipline has pronounced judgment, and part of that excommunication means that the whole church, including you, now, you treat him as a pagan. This becomes equivalent to other passages where somebody is put out of the church.
It’s not, “Now I’m going to score particularly nasty points on him.” This has now become a church judicial decision and you are now operating within that kind of framework and it is still addressed to the you who has gotten involved in this confrontation in the first place.
How you could turn that second person singular addressing the person who is being addressed all through the whole paragraph into the opponent himself doing these things or the pagan doing it, I’m not quite sure, and if Leon has done that, I think it’s a big exegetical mistake, or maybe somebody is misreading Leon. I don’t know. I’d have to go back and check the dear man.
Question: If expository preaching is the key to church health and growth, what is the reason that often in churches that emphasize it the urge to evangelize is weak, the caring of members for those in great need is defective, very few of those in the congregation are converted in it, and very few visitors come to Christ?
Mark: Let me first say sadly I tend to agree with the questioner. I don’t preach expositionally because I see that those churches have the best track record; I preach expositionally because I think that’s what I see in Scripture that I should do. Happily, I can think of exceptions to this. I can think of congregations fed regularly by expository preaching in which the urge to evangelize is very strong.
I’ve been members of those congregations. I have friends that I think pastor such congregations in which the care for members in great need is actually quite strong, in which conversions of adults are pretty regularly seen, and which do have a lot of visitors. I can think of things that are counter-evidence to the situation that you call to mind, but as for why that’s so regularly the case, Don Carson is going to let us know.
Don: My dear friend, Mark, the rat fink. I think implicit in the question is the assumption that expository churches have been taken at their worst and topical churches have been taken at their best. I think it would probably be equally true to say that the vast majority of churches that primarily deploy topical preaching also are a bit bad on evangelism, on outreach, far too introverted, not deeply spiritual, and so on.
In other words, it’s never fair in an argument to take the best of one side and the worst of another side in order to assess the two sides. It just isn’t. The sad fact of the matter is you can find lots and lots and lots of churches from just about any tradition that are really poor at outreach and evangelism and compassion and so forth. So it doesn’t become a powerful argument.
I would say, however, that in the first place, with Mark, one has to decide these issues on a primarily biblical ground, and I didn’t hear what Mark said in his talk just before the meal, but I did hear what he said in it first time round. I agreed with all that he said. I would make one extra point that I briefly alluded to this morning and push it just a little bit harder.
Teaching the Word of God, preaching the Word of God, is not merely a question of getting across God’s truth, though it is that. It should be never less than that, but just as God has so often disclosed himself by his Words, so preaching insofar as it is faithful to God’s Words, ought to be the re-disclosure of God again.
Preaching is the re-revelation of God. Now there are a lot of ways of saying that, but I think that is astonishingly important. That’s why there’s been a whole tradition of seeing preaching as the word of God. Now there’s a real danger in talking like that because it almost elevates the sermon itself to the level of Scripture, and you don’t want to do that.
But nevertheless, insofar as the sermon is accurately reflecting what Scripture actually says insofar as God has revealed himself in the past, uniquely at the time of Scripture by the words that he has used to disclose himself, so also as the words confront people again, God discloses himself afresh.
That is part of the mandate of making the re-articulation of the Word of God, the exposition of the Word of God, absolutely central, because by this means, as God has chosen this means in the past to disclose himself, so he discloses himself again. When you hear preaching of that order, it seems to me, you know what I’m talking about right away.
There can be a kind of preaching that is a boring mere unpacking of the next genitive absolute from the left and the next Hebrew infinitive construct and the kind of mechanical unpacking of things that is formally accurate but not borne along by the Spirit, not with a burden, not with any notion of self-disclosure; it’s just a lecture.
On the other hand, I think one of the reasons why an important question like this one can even arise is because sometimes segments of the church in a particular country have not heard Spirit-anointed expository preaching and so been buoyed up by it that they cannot envisage anything less. The only examples of expository preaching they’ve heard are pretty dry as dust expository lecturing. I don’t know what else to call it. Then, my sympathies are with you, even though I still want to say it’s a false antithesis.
Show me a congregation that has had scattered preaching for 5 years that then has 4 or 5 years of Spirit-anointed expository preaching that takes people through the whole counsel of God, and I’ll show you a congregation that will never want to change again, and I will show you a church, too, that also in the long haul becomes very interested in evangelism and outreach. I could name you churches all around the world that are in that tradition.
Mark: Just to keep going on that, I’ll name some. I went to a Presbyterian church as an undergraduate, and in that church the preaching was expositional and not very exciting in some ways. I’ve heard much better expositional preaching. It was faithful, but the worship was wonderful, hearing God’s Word accurately, being able to respond to it. It was full of visitors. People were converted regularly, so my experience is very different to that of the questioner.
Then also, the church Don and I have both been members of in England has had good expositional preaching, sometimes outstanding, sometimes not, generally faithful, and by God’s grace, there have been many visitors and many conversions.
Our own congregation in Washington, I don’t hesitate to say because I’m not the only one who preaches there, but I would say it is marked by expositional preaching and by God’s grace, with a liveliness, a concern for caring for poor members, caring for members in need, evangelism, and by God’s grace we’ve seen a number of conversions, and that seems to continue. So that’s simply not the experience I’ve had. My experience, actually, in my life, is to associate those times with very exciting times of growth spiritually, personally and as a congregation.
Don: He’s not going to talk about his church, but I will. When I preached at his induction 13 years ago, on an average Sunday morning you would have 45 people with an average age of 65?
Mark: Oh, 100 people with an average age of 75.
Don: And now, what is it? 800 or 900? 800. With an average age of 30?
Don: This has not come about by sort of prolonged death, as you can see. You don’t get those sorts of figures. Or a church like Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City, which started 17 to 18 years ago with 35 people and is now running about 5,000, with mostly conversion growth. I’m not saying that growth measures everything. Missionaries went to Korea at the beginning of the twentieth century and missionaries went to Japan.
A century later, a quarter of the population of South Korea is Christian, and there is almost nothing in Japan still. It’s still way under 1 percent. I’m not suggesting that the growth proves all the missionaries in Korea were really spiritual giants and all the ones in Japan were really dodos. You can’t do that. Some people are called to minister in hard places and hard times. What can you say? Some are called to be martyrs and some are called to be astonishingly fruitful.
On the other hand, if you compare other churches in New York City or in Washington, DC or other places, Cambridge, where there is or is not expository ministry, I’ll take the ones where people are fed by the Word of God again and again and again.
Mark: Don, you might want to stay here for this one because I’m going to answer it very briefly and you’re going to answer at some more length.
Question: Please say more and elaborate more on the statement, “His greatest word is Christ.” This is following up: Is expositional preaching not supposed to be Christ-centered preaching?
Mark: It certainly is, and “His greatest word is Christ.” Don?
Don: You haven’t even started to answer it yet.
Mark: Well, you heard me do this the other day. I was going through the way in God’s Word we see the image of the word used, and talking about John 1 in the talk you had just given, and saying that is the supreme word, sort of in the way that Hebrews 1 talks about it.
When I talk about expository preaching, I don’t in any way mean to suggest that getting into the details of Levitical laws is as important as preaching Christ, but I do assume any expositional preaching appropriately done will point to Christ, because Christ is the greatest self-disclosure of God, the greatest word in that sense that Don was talking about we have been privileged to receive. Don?
Don: One of the things that is crucial in preaching christologically through the whole Bible is learning how the Bible hangs together biblically theologically, how typology works. There is a kind of typology that is without biblical mandate.
You know, Rahab’s red scarlet rope really is a sign of the blood of Christ, and all of that sort of thing. It’s completely without exegetical warrant, and it eventually becomes just a joke. It’s so unbelievable. You cannot find exegetical warrant for that kind of thing. It’s no longer the Word of God. It’s an association game, and eventually it loses credibility with thoughtful people. Nevertheless, there is a kind of typology in Scripture that simply cannot be avoided, and to understand how that works is really crucial.
People have sometimes said that there are 300 prophecies (give or take) in the old covenant Scriptures, in the Old Testament, that are fulfilled in the New Testament. Well, I won’t quibble with the number, (give or take that’s probably about right), but about 260 or 270 of them are typological. It’s really very interesting. There’s a whole David typology, for example, of things that happened to David, in fact, that happened to great David’s greater son.
How typology works and how it’s warranted biblically is a really important subject. Thus, learning how to preach christologically; that is, coming to Christ from whatever part of the Bible you’re in, is an important part of reflecting the unity of the Canon, and learning some biblical theology is really an important part of expository preaching.
If you haven’t read anything on the subject, I’d suggest where you begin is with Edmund P. Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery. It’s a lovely little book. I don’t know if it’s still in print, but it ought to be. Then there’s a pretty good book by Bryan Chapell. The title is Christ-Centered Preaching. It gives a lot of good illustrations and demonstrations of how this sort of think works out as well.
Mark: One more book I would add to that list of recommendations would be one I see is for sale here in the bookstore, which is Graeme Goldsworthy’s book, According to Plan. His little book Gospel and Kingdom is shorter and clearer, but publishers, I guess, noticed it was selling really well, so they packaged it with two other books now. It’s called The Goldsworthy Trilogy. So if you don’t want to get all that, just get his book then According to Plan, and I think you’ll see some of the christological unity that Don’s talking about.
Question: The next sort of question in this series of questions was, “How does expository preaching really take the Word to where the rubber meets the road? Please say more about the practical Christ-centered preaching.
Mark: Well, I think Don has gotten to some of that. As far as application … what I do in my own practice is to have a grid where on a piece of paper I literally draw out however many lines I’ve got for different points in my sermon. I really get this from William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying. It’s just my own modern application of it. I’ll have the first.… What’s unique salvation-historically that’s going on here? Then I’ll have a section for the non-Christian.… What does this say to the non-Christian?
So in my sermons, if you listen to them, I’ll almost always say, “Now if you’re here today and you’re not a Christian …” and I’ll speak to them, letting them know we’re glad they are here. I have people at the door many Sundays tell me how glad they are that I said that because that let them know they are welcome here, that it’s okay for them to be in a church. Many times people who aren’t used to coming don’t know that.
Then I have another column. I’m on Capitol Hill, so we are right by the seat of the US government, which is literally four blocks away. We have legislators and other people who work in the government in the congregation, so I’m trying to think through.… Are there any public implications of this?
Not meaning, therefore, “Vote for Senate Resolution 7,” but meaning, “Okay, this means that we must consider this, as Christians, is immoral,” or “This is something we should advocate as Christians.” People can differ politically over how we get to that end, but that end is Christian. We want to hold that up. Religious liberty is one that I’ll often speak about.
The next column I’ll have is Christ. I want to think particularly.… How do each of these points point to Christ? How are they fulfilled in Christ? Then I have the column that I think is what most evangelical preachers (at least in America) really only preach from, and this is.… How does this apply to the individual Christian? So how does this apply to Tom at work on Thursday morning? How will Susan apply this at home on Saturday? What practical difference does this make? How will this impact your life?
Then I have a final column.… How does this apply to our congregation? (Our own church, CHBC.) What are the congregational implications of this? I don’t think you’re going to find many of my sermons ending up printed in books because they are preached very specifically to my congregation right now and they are shot through with references to it.
They are not sort of general, timeless, more like commentaries. As a preacher I want to be very practical in trying to apply the Word this year, this week, today, in the congregation that I’m standing in front of. Don, do you want to add anything on this?
Don: I think dear Brother Mark wants me to say something simply because he’s got piles of questions there and I only had three, but I’m never offended when I can sit down and listen to him. Besides, I’ve long since learned that when there are no questions it’s because of one of three things: everything was so brilliantly clear that there’s nothing to ask, everything was so horribly obscure that people don’t know where to begin to ask, or the chappie at the front is so intimidating that nobody dares to ask. So I’ve had to come to learn these limitations.
The only thing I’d add is what I mentioned the other day in the Q&A, too. The first book on preaching in the English language was by William Perkins. Did you mention that just now? Yeah? It’s called The Art of Prophesying. In it he develops his own set of grids. It’s not exactly the same set that Mark has, but it’s worth thinking through.
It’s helpful to a preacher to see how others have done this sort of thing. He has a whole set of spiritual categories. He tells the preachers to, after they’ve understood the text, they’ve understood its message and its burden, think through how this applies to, for instance, the hard-hearted, unconverted, ill-informed; to the hard-hearted, unconverted, well-informed; to the hard-hearted, converted, ill-informed; and so on.
He gets these whole spiritual grids worked out and tries to give some illustrations of how these various things work out. That’s another set of spiritual grids, and it’s worth thinking about them, too. Not only the very practical ones Mark is talking about, but how about backsliders in the congregation? How about people who are just treading water after quite a number of years?
Then there’s another whole set of grids that have to do with the actual diversity of the congregation. If you spot young preachers … 28, been married 3 years, one baby. There will be endless references in their sermons to babies desiring the pure milk of the Word.
I don’t know how many Trinity graduates have preached sermons on desiring the pure milk of the Word, and there are these very sentimental gooey descriptions of how the baby sucks on there and that’s the way it ought to be when we read the Bible. Isn’t that cute? Many of us have probably done that when we were young ourselves.
W.A. Criswell, a very famous preacher in the South, sort of went on and on and on way past retirement and sort of kept on, and he wasn’t going to quit preaching until he dropped dead. But quite a lot of people in that church noticed that for the last 5 years about every second sermon talked about death. I wonder why.
What that means, therefore, is whether he’s 28 or 88 it’s part of the pastor’s job to think imaginatively through every block in the congregation: minorities, educated, single people, poor people, well-to-do people, students, postgraduates, people who are becoming grandparents, people who have just got divorced.
It’s important to think through all of those different blocks, especially in a large congregation, so that without changing the content of your sermon, without changing the burden of what the text says, even the one-line applications, let alone the more detailed applications, begin to embrace people that reflect the diversity of the congregation.
Partly that is so you’re touching more people, but partly also so that it’s bearing witness you, as pastor, love all your people and you’re not just looking at things from your own little grid but you’re creatively projecting into all of their lives and caring for all of them.
Question: Please explain the difference between legalistic and redemptive preaching.
Mark: Well, of course it depends on what that person means, but I would say legalistic preaching is preaching that reinforces us in our own self-righteousness, which sends us to hell. Whereas, redemptive preaching tells us that we are sinners and that we need a Savior and that Savior is Christ, and if we will be saved, it is by faith alone in Christ alone.
Now the reason that question, I think, would even come up in a group of Bible-believing ministers who have gathered together would be because as Christians who live in a fallen world, and particularly in the licentious day that we live in, our souls, like righteous Lot’s, I think, are tried by the unrighteousness we see around us.
But we often, I think, have the wrong response to that. We are tempted to respond by preaching the law, by preaching what should be the case, by preaching to those bad people out there, and that’s never, not 5 percent of the time, that’s never a good way for a Christian preacher to preach.
I remember when I first came back from England and was returning to America.… My mother is not a Christian, but she loves family, so she wanted me to meet this second or third cousin that I had never met. So we were meeting up in this one place, and she was very proud of me because I had a PhD now from Cambridge.
She was very embarrassed by what I was going to do … be a preacher, and a Baptist preacher at that. It was just the height of dishonor, I think, in her mind. Anyway, I was meeting this cousin of hers. We were talking, and the cousin was very interested in England and Cambridge, “Oh, that sounded very interesting,” and then she asked, “Now what do you do?”
Mom had never told her, which I thought, “That’s interesting. This woman has driven like an hour to meet me, and Mom didn’t even tell her what I did.” “Well,” I said, “actually, I’m a Southern Baptist preacher.” Immediately, her face fell, and she said, “Oh. I don’t have any use for organized religion. I think the church is just a bunch of hypocrites.”
I listened to her. She went on just a little bit more as she kind of looked down at her coffee and stirred her coffee, and I said, “Really?” She said, “Yeah.” I said, “Now I’m just curious. Do you think the world outside is really so much better?” She kind of kept stirring her coffee, and she went, “Well.… I guess not. I guess you’re right. I guess the whole world is full of hypocrites.” She said, “The difference is the people outside know they’re hypocrites.” And she just kept stirring her coffee.
I said, “You know, you’d probably be surprised how much I agree with you. I agree the world is full of hypocrites. I couldn’t agree more, and it may surprise you, but I think the church is full of hypocrites. I agree with you there, too. In fact, I know that any church I’m ever going to be a part of is going to be full of hypocrites. Now there are churches that don’t know they’re hypocrites, and I wouldn’t touch those churches with a 10-foot pole. I’m going to stay away from those, but any church that realizes they’re hypocrites, that’s what I think a Christian church is like.”
She had earlier referred to churches in part of her musings as the church as a pits of vipers. I said at that point, at the end of this little bit of the conversation, “So I agree with you that the church is a pit of vipers, but I think we’ve all come in there because we realize that we’re vipers. That’s why we’re there. That’s the reason we’re in church, and so, if you ever want to slither on in, we’ve got room for more.”
I think as Christians we have to have a sense of our own unworthiness. We have to be able to admit it to the world. This is not a self-righteousness club. As preachers of our temptation, now I’m not saying we don’t educate our own congregation in the law. I do believe in the third use of the law (as theologians call it). I do believe that the law is to be instructive for the conduct of regenerate people, but we are never regenerated by the law.
So we do have to be careful about our tendency to moralism, our tendency to think that the main thing we need to do is teach these people how to live. Well, only if you mean we need to teach them to live despairing of their own righteousness, trusting truly in Christ.
Question: Please say something about practical methodology of preaching for expositional sermons from narrative passages from Scripture. Don?
Don: In the wise providence of God, the Scripture that he has given to us is made up of many different literary genres. It’s not all discourse. Many of us have read with great appreciation the sermons of Lloyd-Jones, and I’m old enough to have heard him quite a number of times when he was an older man and I got to know his family a little better.
I can’t remember the exact number of volumes of sermons that he’s got out now, about 75 or 76, give or take two or three, that’s about it. Now of that 75 or 76 volumes of sermons, guess how many treat narrative parts of Scripture? One. Now that’s partly because he comes from a generation that loved discourse. It was not given to narrative quite so much, and that’s partly a cultural thing.
I haven’t spent much time here in South Africa. It’s only my second trip. I have spent a little more time in Central Africa where I’ve gotten to know quite a number of African churches from a variety of Central African nations that shall remain nameless, many of whom are really quite gifted in handling narrative and really don’t know what they are doing when they are handling Romans.
That’s partly cultural. Linear thought, very carefully reasoned out, step by step can be alien in some cultures, just as for Lloyd-Jones telling story was not his big shtick, whereas for some tribes that’s a very big shtick. But if you intend to be a preacher of the Word of God who is genuinely mature and handles all of what God has given us, then on the long haul, what you want to do is teach everybody to handle all the different literary genres, and that is not just discourse and narrative, but also Proverbs and lament and apocalyptic and so on.
So part of maturation in expository preaching is learning how to handle fairly, wisely, carefully the different kinds of literary genres that God himself has given to us. I’m sure he could have given his revelation to us in the form of a systematic theology, but he didn’t. That’s not depreciating systematic theology. You can certainly generate systematic theology out of Scripture, but what God has given is this astonishingly diverse book. That is, diverse from the point of view of literary genre.
Now when you get to narrative, there are certain things that become important that are far less important when you’re doing Galatians. In narrative, then, amongst the things you’ve got to keep an eye peeled for are:
- The development of the plot line. Even historical narrative is story. It’s historical story with an external referent, but it’s still story, and that means you’ve got to see how the plot develops. Where’s the story going? That’s important.
- Characterization. How thumbnail sketches are given of people so that you begin to see what they’re like, how their character fits into, is shaped by and, in turn, shapes the development of the story. There are often catch phrases or the like that recur and recur and recur that have a kind of weight from repetition. Sometimes there are hook words or the like that tie the narrative to other parts of the story, symbol-laden things.
For example, Jesus tells Judas to go out from the Last Supper. “He went out, and it was night.” Well, is that simply telling us it was after dark? It’s sort of locating it temporally. Is that all it’s doing? Not very likely when you see how often John plays with light/darkness, day/night symbolism right through his whole book.
You’re forced to see in that little bit in the narrative a symbol-laden kind of freight because you’re asking what the hook words are back to larger themes in the larger corpus of literature. Among the things this means is you then want in preaching narrative to take a more extended section. If you’re preaching Romans, I still think, by and large, we need to go at least paragraph by paragraph or half-chapter by half-chapter or even chapter by chapter when you’re dealing with a congregation that is largely biblically illiterate.
They need help to see the flow of the thing, and if you just go quarter-verse by quarter-verse it’s harder to see that flow, but it’s extremely important to get the larger chunk in narrative. I’ve preached through Job, for example, in four sermons. Now I’d be prepared to go high as eight or ten. It isn’t going to get a sort of half-verse by half-verse treatment, partly because Job is cast as epic, and in epic you’ve got to see the big movement.
You have to hear the thrust of the burden of the weight when Elihu gets up and how Job comes back and when Bildad gets up and when Job comes back. You’ve got to hear the thrust of the drama. If you lose the thrust of the drama, then Job loses its power, so that you’re making judgments also about how you break up the text for preaching when you come to different literary genres.
Similarly, I would also say that for experienced preachers your style of preaching itself may change a wee bit from literary genre to literary genre. When I preach in university settings, evangelistic settings nowadays, it’s not uncommon for me to use apocalyptic passages, and part of the reason is, this is a very visual age.
I discovered university students are not embarrassed by the astonishing color and symbolism of apocalyptic literature. They love it! It’s the sort of starchy conservative Christians in the bunch that find it most difficult. “Yes, but sir, what about the third horn from the right?” But that’s not where contemporary students are. So when I’m preaching apocalyptic of a night I use far more extravagant language. Let it flow. Let the story build so that it’s powerful. You call up the vast images.
When you’re doing Romans, it’s different. You’ve got to work through the logic of it very carefully, and so on. The different genres actually should ultimately be reflected even in the form of your sermon. Now that takes a little more time and a little more experience and all of that, but on the long haul, that’s part of what it means to be a faithful purveyor, a faithful herald of the whole counsel of God.
Now there’s a lot more that could be said in this regard. There’s a little book I’d recommend. There are some parts of it I don’t like, but it’s still well worth reading even though here and there I might disagree with it. It’s by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart and called, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. That’s a good place to begin if you haven’t done anything at all in terms of literary genre.
There are now books on all of the literary genres of Scripture, and if you’re beginning to move into them, then we could talk about those privately. If you’re starting to do something on Proverbs, well, nowadays there are excellent books on how to handle Wisdom Literature and so forth. But if you want a good survey of the whole, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth is probably a good place to begin.
Mark: We have a fairly transient congregation, so one of the things as a pastor I’ve decided that I want to do is to try, during the space of 2 to 3 years, to make sure that there will be some sermon series preached from the Law; some sermon series preached from the historical books of the Old Testament; some sermon series preached from the poetry, the writings in the middle; some sermon series preached from the Prophets; some sermon series from the Gospels or Acts; some sermon series from Paul’s letters; and some from the general letters.
So if you’ve been in our congregation for 2 or 3 years you should have heard, from the front, me handle in a whole series of sermons the different genres of Scripture. That’s what I’m trying to do. One of the things I did in my first 10 years is I did occasional series of overviews of books of the Bible.
That can be a great way just for you, yourself, to be forced to read and reread, because I find in preaching narrative (I don’t think I’m a natural narrative preacher) one of the things that helps me do it is reading and rereading and rereading the story until you really begin to sense where those crucial parts of it are. It’s very different than the way you analyze an argument in Romans or Galatians, but still requiring every bit as close as attention, just a different kind of attention.
So I’ve actually published those two volumes of overview sermons on the Old Testament and the New Testament where I’ll do one sermon on the book of Isaiah, and it’s meant to be a summary of what Isaiah’s message is to God’s people, one on Lamentations, one on the gospel of Luke. So I don’t know if we have those here, but anyway, they have been published and are called The Message of the Old Testament and The Message of the New Testament.
Question: How do you transform the expectations of church members not to want a pastor to be a social figure or a social worker but to really expect and want an expositional preacher? How do you train your congregation to want expositional preaching?
Mark: Well, that’s a great question. I know many pastors would love to know the answer to that. I think preachers are sometimes too backwards, too reticent, too slow to preach on being a preacher, but because in God’s Word there are explicit passages about what it means to be a preacher of God’s Word, an elder, a teacher, I think it’s important that we teach the congregation that because the congregation needs to know what Scripture requires of us.
So I would encourage you, preacher, particularly if you feel this is the situation you’re in, to begin teaching them, and as you begin not only modeling it yourself, certainly do that, but also teaching them what it is they should desire. Then trust the Holy Spirit can use that even to transform the most unlikely of congregations. Don?
Don: The best way to transform the expectations of a congregation is by giving them such a taste for it that they don’t want anything less. At the risk of treading on toes, how many hours do you spend in preparing a sermon, and how do you divide up your time? For most of us, there are so many demands on our lives we could easily devour all of our time each week in counsel in many of our churches. There are enough problems around, aren’t there?
Then you throw in the administration in a small church, making up the bulletin, and all kinds of things that are part of life in an ordinary parish. So that somewhere along the line, if you’re serious about preaching, what it means is you have to block out time for preparation. You don’t accidentally become an expository preacher. You become an expository preacher by blocking out time that you do not chip away from apart from an emergency.
To be a good teacher/preacher of the Word of God you have to be a good student of the Word of God. Within that framework, then, it’s a lot more work in the preparation of the next sermon to be an expositor than to be a topical preacher. It’s a lot more work. The trouble is that if you’re a topical preacher, probably after 3 to 5 years, you’ve burned through all your topics. You become boring. You just become repetitious.
If you’re teaching the whole counsel of God properly you’ll never become bored or boring. There’s just so much stuff there! One of the reasons why preachers sometimes move on so fast is because they burn themselves out with topical preaching. They can crank them out pretty fast, but on the other hand, after a while, they’re bored with them themselves, for goodness’ sake, let alone the congregation.
Whereas, if you reserve serious time for the study of the Word of God, seeking not only to understand it, but to make it fresh, you have to devote serious time to that. You just have to. On the other hand, it pays off huge dividends in converting the church to a desire to genuinely be fed by the Word of God.
For those of us who have been doing expository preaching for quite a lot of time, there’s another trap. There is the trap of saying, “Okay, I’m going to study the Word of God; I’m going to be serious.” You block out time for it, and you work through commentaries and you work through the Greek text or the Hebrew text. You’re very serious about your outlines and all of this.
You put together 80 percent of your time, 85 percent of your time into trying to understand the text, and then your last 15 percent, 10 percent of your time, then you slap together an outline and think of a couple of clever illustrations as best you can and then maybe throw in a pious, “And may the Lord bless this to your heart,” or something like that and hope that will do.
Whereas, when I have talked this over with many preachers in the world who have a really good reputation for expository preaching and asked, “What percentage of the time is devoted to understanding the text as text and what percentage of the time in sermon preparation is devoted to then thinking through the outline, the presentation, how it applies to life, how it is made to live, the actual writing up of the manuscript if you’re a full manuscript writer? What percentage of your time is given to that? The best of them? It’s about 50–50.
Now the danger thus for some of us who are serious about expository preaching is we begin to put 80 or 90 percent of our time in understanding the text. Well, it’s commendable that you want to understand the text, but that is what sometimes gives expository preaching a bad name. That is, you become so heavy with text you don’t even know what to leave out. You have to explain every cotton-picking particle.
As a result, it just becomes boring. There’s no burden to it. There’s no life, because there’s been no thought or imagination or care or prayer or meditation on how then to put it together as a sermon. So what I’m encouraging, therefore, is not only a serious time devoted to understanding the text, but serious time devoted to putting it into sermon form. The more you do that, then I think the more you generate taste for that in a congregation. Mark now instructs me to close in prayer, so let us pray.
Lord God, we confess how often we fail, how little we understand compared with what we should understand. It is a wonderful thing that you have called us not only to be your people, but many of us you have called to this work of the ministry. We are both privileged and burdened by it. It is a wonderful privilege so to be supported by the people of God that we can give so many hours to the study of the Word of God in order to teach the whole counsel of God to the whole people of God. What grace and privilege is this.
So make us, we earnestly pray, workers who do not need to be ashamed, rightly interpreting the Word of Truth, and this in a context not of creating sermons that are art forms but sermons that are revelatory, where you yourself by your Word come to your people again and disclose yourself and through that Word bring encouragement and rebuke, the terror of judgment, the ugliness of sin, the utter power and attractiveness and glory and compassion of your own dear Son, the truth of the gospel, the sweep of redemptive history, the care with which we are individually and corporately instructed and rebuked, corrected in righteousness.
O Lord God, who is sufficient for these things? Will you not work in us by your Spirit to give us a hunger to be faithful in that to which you have called us. Please, God, grant that this may bear fruit in our lives, in the congregations over which you have made us overseers, in the country where you have placed us so that the Word of God is lifted up afresh and men and women come to know you, whom to know is life eternal. This we pray for the glory of your dear Son, for the good of the people for whom he shed his life’s blood. For Jesus’ sake, amen.
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