18 January 2007

Spurgeon and expository preaching

by Phil Johnson

eople frequently point out to me that Spurgeon did not normally do expository preaching. Usually the point is made with the tone of a challenge, and with a clear subtext: How can you criticize the seeker-sensitive stye of topical and relational preaching? Your own historical hero wasn't an expositor, either. He was the Rick Warren of his day.

It's true that Spurgeon was not an expository preacher. In fact, he regarded biblical exposition as something distinct from "preaching." His approach to "exposition" was simply to read a phrase and comment on it. Some of his printed sermons include an "Exposition" section, but the "exposition" was a whole different part of the worship service, distinct from the preaching.

Here's an unusually stark example of Spurgeon's departure from the expository style in his sermons. In his sermon "Things That Accompany Salvation", Spurgeon began by acknowledging that his sermon didn't quite reflect the meaning of the text from which he borrowed his title. His very first words were:

I AM not quite certain that my text will warrant all I shall say upon it this day if read and understood in its connection. But I have taken the words rather by accommodation than otherwise, and shall make use of them as a kind of heading to the discourse which I hope to be enabled to deliver.

Now, don't misunderstand: That wasn't his normal approach, either. In that sermon, he was just borrowing a phrase from Scripture to use as a title, and he formally acknowledged that. Normally, he at least took time to explain both the context and the meaning of his text, even if he then departed from the text and its context into a more topical kind of message.

So what does this prove? It certainly doesn't invalidate Spurgeon's whole preaching ministry. Do I recommend the approach he used? No. But fortunately, in Spurgeon's case, his mind and heart were so saturated with Scripture that (to borrow his words) his very blood was bibline. Cut him, and he would bleed Bible verses. His topical approach to preaching also did usually include some elements of exposition. (Before I preach on a given passage, I always read Spurgeon to see how he dealt with it. I find he often gives great help with the exposition of the passage, even though that was not his main focus in his sermons.) And if he ever spoke anywhere on any topic (even when he was just delivering a "lecture" to an academic audience), there was enough Scripture in the message that practically any talk he ever gave anywhere would likely exceed even some of today's "expository" sermons for sheer biblical content.

Nevertheless, the topical approach to preaching is certainly not one I would commend to young men who fill their spare hours with "American Idol" and Jack Bauer, rather than with Puritan literature and Bible commentaries, the way Spurgeon did.

By the way, Spurgeon lived in an era when almost no one did expository preaching. He was, in that sense, a product of his times.

Moreover, the so-called "topical sermons" the typical contemporary preacher delivers are something entirely different. My chief objection to the average seeker-sensitive homily is not merely that it's is not exposition, but that it sometimes deliberately makes no connection to Scripture whatsoever, or at least makes the "biblical" connection as wispy and tenuous as possible. One of the leading gurus of the seeker-sensitive movement advises preachers it is unwise to begin their sermons with Scripture. Spurgeon would rightly have abominated such advice.

In other words, whatever else you say about Spurgeon's approach to Scripture, you can't accuse him of not being biblical, and you cannot summon him for support of the seeker-sensitive methodology. I don't think anyone could honestly argue that someone who needs to hire Hulk Hogan as a shill is very concerned about being biblical in any sense. Some preachers nowadays even seem to pride themselves on the way they relegate Scripture to a footnote in their message.

That approach certainly can't be legitimately defended by any comparison with Spurgeon.

Phil's signature


Scott W. Kay said...

Thanks Phil. That was a helpful explanation to a question I've had for some time. I appreciate you taking the time to help some of us Spurgeon-loving expository preachers.

You hit the nail about the guys who hire the likes of Hulk Hogan. Who are they going to hire next, Oprah or Snoop Dogg?


Anonymous said...

Man. I really enjoy your writing. Not only that, but your writing on Spurgeon's writing/speaking.

dogfreid said...

What if Hulk Hogan's upcoming message is titled "Just Stop and Think"?

Would't that blow our minds?

James Scott Bell said...

Phil, is it true Spurgeon used to decide what verse to preach on Saturday night? And just sort of winged it? It is a truly gifted man who can do that, a thoroughly Bible soaked man.

When some current preachers do the same, just go off on riffs, it seems "authentic" to the audience, but the meat is not there, the true study and organization. And that's not serving the people.

Dr. MacArthur preaches from rather detailed notes, is that not correct?

Norman said...

"Some preachers nowadays even seem to pride themselves on the way they relegate Scripture to a footnote in their message."


dogfreid said...


The post was getting frozen midway through publishing and I thought it didn't go through.

Sorry about that.

Phil Johnson said...

Berny "The post was getting frozen midway through publishing and I thought it didn't go through."

The new and "improved" Blogger software seems to have some bugs in it. I've seen that same thing happen a few times this week.

BTW, I was going to migrate the blog over to the new software to see if it cleared up some of those incompatibilities and problems, but even though Blogger keeps telling me the new software is "ready" for me, when I try, I get a message saying they can't put PyroManiacs on the new system yet, because "some of my blogs" aren't compatible. It's a very unhelpful warning message. Google seems to be having more trouble getting their act together than they used to.

Anyway, as to Berny's question:

Berny: "What if Hulk Hogan's upcoming message is titled 'Just Stop and Think'?"

I'll tell you what: if it is, we'll do a point-by-point comparison with the Chan video and weigh which one gives more of the gospel. If not, let's keep the video controversy out of other threads, OK? I changed the subject for a reason. It amazes me how long some people are willing to pursue an obviously fruitless argument.

And that last remark is not aimed at Berny, who I think was just being wry. But I have in mind a few people on both sides of the interminable Chan-video battle. How much more is that topic going to be kicked around, with the same people sayting the same thing over and over?

If I wanted a perpetual barroom brawl with endless, fruitless rehashes of bad ideas and bad arguments that no balanced person could reasonably get so worked up about, I'd be hanging out over at the Boar's Head. Let's not do that here, OK?

Thus endeth the Chan-video debate.

Permanently this time.

(Unless, of course, the Hogan thing really does turn out to be titled, "Just Stop and Think." Then, as I said, we'll do that comparison.)

FX Turk said...

I'm starting anew blog called "just stop." Bob Newhart is going to guest blog next week.

Stay Tuned.

Gary Bisaga (aka fool4jesus) said...

It seems to me that there's a continuum here, and a sermon can be "expository" in the sense that it's based on one or more verses of the Bible but not "expository" in the sense that it really exposes the verse(s) and gets all their meaning out of it.

Consequently, some pastors claim to be "expository" when most people who know what expository preaching generally is like would deny it. I present this article on Rick Warren's pastors.com:


The article (a review) seems to me good as far as it goes: it makes the point (following the book) that most preachers who think they're doing expository preaching really don't. However, if "most" preachers are doing this, where are the others coming from? It's like the old Lake Woebegone line "... and all the children are above average."

I think most Purpose Driven preachers can read an article like that and serenely say that they are, in fact, doing expository preaching because they pick a Bible verse for the day and then "apply" it to people's lives. Unfortunately, the Purpose-Driven preaching I've heard has made no real connection between the verse and the application - the verse was a sort of window dressing, mentioned once at some point in the sermon and then discarded thereafter for the preacher's own thoughts, stories, and videos.

HeavyDluxe said...

Thus endeth the Chan-video debate. Permanently this time.

Yeah!! Whatcha gonna do, brother, when Phil runs wild on yoooooouuuuu>?!?!?

Family Blogs said...

JSB said:

'Phil, is it true Spurgeon used to decide what verse to preach on Saturday night? And just sort of winged it?'

Literally! In Lectures to my Students Spurgeon describes the trials of not having a text to preach from at a particular service. He says:

"Just then I walked to the window and looked out. On the other side of the narrow street in which I lived, I saw a poor solitary canary bird upon the slates surrounded by a crowd of sparrows, who were all pecking at it as if they would tear it to pieces. At that moment the verse came to my mind - 'My heritage is unto me as a speckled bird...' I walked off with the greatest possible composure, considered the passage during my long and lonely walk, and preached upon the peculiar people, and the persecutions of their enemies"

Which of us would dare to do that? And yet which of us could candidly say 'I confess that I frequently sit hour after hour praying and waiting for a subject'?

Perhaps the danger of expository ministry is that we can fall into the 'routine' trap, and not be as reliant on the Holy Spirit as Spurgeon evidently was...A combination of both systematic preparation and Holy Spirit liberty seem to me to be the key.

But then again, what do I know :)

Sharad Yadav said...

If I wanted a perpetual barroom brawl with endless, fruitless rehashes of bad ideas and bad arguments that no balanced person could reasonably get so worked up about, I'd be hanging out over at the Boar's Head. Let's not do that here, OK?

I completely understand why you wouldn't want to do that here - but anytime you crave the respite of being radically unbalanced, please don't hesitate to come by!

Jeff Wright said...

Alright, a Hulk Hogan interview! Oh wait...is that not what I was supposed to take away from that post? ;)

donsands said...

Very refreshing post. Appreciate how you share your God-giftedness with the people of the Lord.

c.c. said...

hmm. more for me to think about.

after a year and a half at grace community church i began to think that "Grace-style" sermons/preaching was THE style. then i transfered to a Christian university and began attending a different church, and i've heard my fair share of life-changing topical sermons. as i've ruminated a little on the subject i've become more convinced that it depends on the speaker's focus on the word of God - whether "unleashing God's truth one verse at a time" or basing his words on a few "selected scripture"s and generally biblical concepts.

but helpful financial advice, church-growth reports and words of man-made wisdom still do not go down with me.

The Predestined Blog said...

Wow, that was ridiculous ~ You're mentor Dr. S. Lewis Johnson once said jokingly that after the rapture he'd like to stay on earth for a little while just to see what churches like these would say haha.

For good measure you should interview Shawn Michaels "The Heartbreak Kid" who is a genuine Christian (and one time WWF champion I believe). I was skeptical too, but I read part of his official WWE autobiography and it was super encouraging.

Doug said...

Surely you jest about Shawn Michaels. I used to watch WWF (now WWE) and Shawn Michaels is not a good role model to claim as a Christian. This is from the WWE bio:

"Michaels paired up with Triple H and Chyna to form D-Generation X, a group that defied authority and marched to the beat of their own drum. They employed the use of vulgarity and obscene gestures and spit in the face of those that tried to stop them."

Hardly the type we want as an illustration in a sermon (unless it's an illustration of total depravity).

SB said...

The ironic thing was that the Hulk hogan shill project started out with an edifying sermon on Fasting(not expositional or reformed but at least it was semi decent-entitled "Piano")

Listen to it here

Morris Brooks said...

Spurgeon was biblical and contextual, using Scripture to comment on Scripture. Most topical sermons are just a launching pad for the preacher to spew out his own stuff and use the verses however he sees fit. Context rules whether you are preaching verse by verse or topically.

The Predestined Blog said...

@ Doug

Shawn Michael's has become a recent convert to Christ, much after WWF become WWE.

Though I think he has some rough patches still obviously, but his conversion seemed genuine (at least on print).

He understood that he was a sinner, accepted Christ, told Vince McMahon he would not come back if he would do anything that would violate his conscious, told all his friends that he became a new person and witnessed to them ( I believe). Yes, he still has someways to go, and I could be wrong, but it really did seem genuine ~ we should encourage new Christians no?

Mark said...

A very good lecture on preaching and teaching Jesus through various methods (expository, topical, etc.) can be found here...


Unknown said...

Thanks for you contribution. Are some people just naturally gifted in expository preaching?
Any good link on expository preaching? ....or even free materials?