MORE CONTROVERSIAL THOUGHTS
I have been in the ministry for forty-five years, and I have tried various ways of preaching. Once I did nothing but what are called "expository" sermons. But I have come slowly to believe that most verse-by-verse preaching is basically harmful to evangelism - and to the growth of Christians as well.
I know that what I say on this subject is controversial. We live on an age where verse-by-verse preaching is highly esteemed. But, paradoxically, we also live in an age that has not seen revival, an age where the churches have become quite powerless, an age where the pulpit has far less influence than it once had. And I believe that we need to rethink what is accepted, what most teachers of homiletics tell us about "expository" preaching today.
Here are a few thoughts on this subject:
(1) Someone says, "I challenge anyone to write a topical sermon on salvation better than Romans." What? The book of Romans is a topical sermon! It is certainly not a modern, alliterated, verse-by-verse expository sermon! It covers several topics and is not a verse-by-verse exposition of an Old Testament book. It is foolish to imply that any New Testament epistle is an "expository sermon" in the modern sense of the word. Thoughtless statements on this subject won't help any of us improve our preaching. Take a few days, a few months, a few decades, to think through these matters before speaking. The Internet lets us speak very quickly, but quick answers are usually very flippant and trite.
(2) I believe that we should preach Bible sermons. Our authority comes from the Bible. Dr. W. A. Criswell was the greatest preacher I ever heard in person. I loved to hear him preach. Dr. Criswell called his sermons "expository sermons," but most people would call them "textual sermons" today. Like Spurgeon, Dr. Criswell would generally preach from one or two verses of Scripture. Yet he gave the meaning of the words, and he drew his points from the verse. I would call most of his sermons "textual expositions." This is the same thing that Spurgeon did so well. It is also what Whitefield, Wesley, Edwards and Nettleton did. To me these are among the greatest preachers of all time. Last year I heard a tape recording of an evangelistic sermon by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones which I consider to be one of the finest sermons I ever heard. It was so good that I listened to it three times - all the way through - and I can only say that it was electrifying. It was a textual exposition of Luke 13:23-24. The sermon centered on the words, "Lord, are there few that be saved?" To me, this is the kind of preaching we need today - textual expositions.
(3) How can we preach textual expositions and at the same time avoid "hobby-horse" sermons on "hot button" subjects? I believe that the answer is simple: by listening to the people in our congregation, and by praying for God to guide us. If we would ask people questions and listen to their answers after we preach, we would learn what they need to hear. For instance, take the war with Iraq. I have not preached a sermon on the war this spring. Why? Because the war, though a "hot button" subject, does not have any bearing on the lives of the people in my church. Instead, I have preached three sermons on evolution in the last two weeks - because this does have a direct bearing on them - since our church is mostly made up of people who either graduated from a secular college or are currently attending one. They are bombarded daily with ideas that come directly from evolution. They need to hear Bible answers on that subject - not on the "hot button" subject of the war, which has little or no bearing on them personally. I may preach once in a while on a "hot button" subject, but I usually don't. We can only find out what people need to hear by asking them questions and listening to their answers. A preacher is a shepherd, and God tells us, "Take heedto all the flockto feed the church of God" (Acts 20:28). The words "take heed" mean "pay attention to." Going mechanically through a book of the Bible does not tend to be preaching that "takes heed" of the people's needs. To "take heed" (i.e. pay attention) to the needs of the people, the preacher must ask them questions and then listen to their answers - and then preach to their stated needs. The Bible says, "Be thou diligent to know the state of thy flocks, and look well to thy herds" (Proverbs 27:23).
(4) You will often hear verse-by-verse preachers say that their style makes them "deal with every subject" instead of sticking to a few subjects. This may seem wise at first, but I don't think it really is wise. Most people simply don't need to hear "every subject." Let me give you a whimsical illustration of what I mean. Dr. Cagan, a deacon in our church, at one time attended a church where the preacher did verse-by-verse work. He came in his expositions to a portion of Scripture dealing with circumcision, and went into a lengthy series, verse-by-verse, on this subject. Dr. Cagan learned all about it - but he remained unsaved. He did not get saved under this man's "teaching." He got saved when he heard a man preach the gospel! So I am saying that people don't need to hear "every subject." They really only need to hear a few subjects preached well. One preacher says he is going to preach 30 to 40 sermons on I Peter, dealing with a plethora of subjects. He says, "There will be variety, relevanceand all manner of doctrine - but all done in an expository fashion." It sounds to me like a few superficial words on many subjects - with no change in the hearers' lives. What about preaching 30 to 40 sermons to them on just one subject - like Hell, or real conversion? That might actually change somebody! The great Puritan preachers often did just that! They pounded one point home in sermon after sermon after sermon. Three great awakenings were the result. Some of the key subjects people need to hear preached over and over include sermons on total depravity, the unpardonable sin, Hell, the agony of Christ, the Blood of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, conversion, the Last Judgment, self-examination, church attendance, and the authority of the Bible. If subjects like this were kept before the minds of the people, over and over, it would do them a great deal more good than the verse-by-verse messages given today which touch lightly on many subjects but change no one's life.
(5) I find, after 45 years of preaching, that most of what I say is soon forgotten. I used to think that people would follow my sermons and remember all the points - and sub-points. But I have found that they only remember a few things - so I feel now that the "few things" ought to be central things. I consider the list of subjects I gave under point 4 to be some of those "central things." For instance, in almost every sermon I now say that Jesus died on the Cross to pay the penalty for our sins. That is a "central thing." I also say that Christ rose physically from the dead. I say this repeatedly because I found, by asking questions and listening to the answers, that most people don't know it - or don't believe it - and you can't really be a Christian without knowing it (physically, bodily, His real flesh and bones) and believing it. I also repeatedly preach that Christ ascended back to Heaven and is seated on the right hand of God. This great truth is given repeatedly in the New Testament, and is therefore one of the "central things."
(6) What did Paul mean when he said, "For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (I Corinthians 2:2)? I wish every preacher would carefully read and think over what is written about preaching in I Corinthians 1:18 through 2:8. I read one of Spurgeon's sermons nearly every week now. I must admit that I never read his sermons until I was over fifty years old. What a mistake! Great Spurgeon never strayed far from the atonement. "What a bloody man he was!" said a friend who reads his sermons. He was not criticizing. He was complimenting Spurgeon. Again and again Spurgeon takes us to Gethsemane to the Blood-soaked Saviour, in agony and prayer. Again and again, he takes us to the judgment hall, to the scourging, to the beatings, to the beard-plucking, to the Blood-soaked crown of thorns, to the nails, the spear, the tomb. These, to me are "central things" - as are the nail prints in Christ's resurrected flesh.
Thank you for taking the time to read this message. Maybe some day I'll be able to put it all down in a clearer way. Maybe not. I hope what I said helps someone this Easter. I do know this - these are "central things."
Dr. Hymers' Note: Having stated my case for preaching on one or two verses, I will back off a little and say that there is a place for expository preaching. I simply think that we have too much of it, and too little evangelistic preaching, which is quite different. For an example of an expository sermon that I have given recently, click on, "The Gospel of Christ - An Easter Sermon."