This entry is part 3 of 10 in the series: Preachers and their preaching
- Preachers and their preaching – John Calvin
- Preachers and their preaching – the Puritans
- Preachers and their preaching – Charles Simeon
- Preachers and their preaching – Phillips Brooks
- Preachers and their preaching – C.H. Spurgeon
- Preachers and their preaching – D.M. Lloyd-Jones
- Preachers and their preaching – J. Sidlow Baxter
- Preachers and their preaching – John Stott
- Preachers and their preaching – Fred Craddock
- Preachers and their preaching – Simon Ponsonby
Charles Simeon (1759 – 1836) was converted to faith in Christ while he was a student at Cambridge University. He became the minister of Holy Trinity, Cambridge, where he overcame resentment and prejudice to exercise an influential evangelical ministry.
Simeon’s approach to preaching has been discussed by J.I. Packer in an essay entitled ‘Expository Preaching: Charles Simeon and Ourselves’. This was first published in Churchman in 1960, is reprinted in Packer’s Collected Shorter Works (Vol 3), and is available online here.
Simeon’s preaching, asserts Packer, was truly expository, even though he usually preached from short texts. Expository preaching, Packer says, is not to be defined according to length of text but according to the relationship between the text and the sermon. If the principle aim of the preacher is to speak authoritatively from God to the people by bringing out of the inspired text what is really there (rather than, say, using it as a motto, or a peg upon which to hang ‘holy thoughts’), then his preaching is expository.
The example of Simeon, as evidenced in the 2,536 sermon outlines he has left, suggests a number of lessons:-
1. An expository sermon should follow the ordinary basic rules of sermon construction. An expository sermon is not merely a running commentary on the text. Simeon insisted that it must have ‘unity in the design, perspicuity in the arrangement, and simplicity in the diction’. And, since a sermon is meant to instruct, it must not be longer nor more difficult than the hearers can tolerate.
Then again, even though a sermon is meant to instruct, it is not a lecture. The mind must be informed in a manner that affects the heart – comforting the hearers, or leading them to acts of piety, repentance, and holiness.
2. An expository sermon should be textual in character. The substance of the sermon should come out of the passage, and not be imposed on it. “I never preach,” said Simeon, “unless I feel satisfied that I have the mind of God as regards the sense of the passage.” He objected to the tendency in his day for both Calvinstic and Arminian preachers to read their respective systems into the text. Although he preached from short texts, rather than from the longer passages favoured by many expository preachers, he insisted that the text should make complete sense: preaching from just one or two words would be impertinent and foolish. As Packer says, ‘the prime secret of freedom and authority in preaching, as Simeon was well aware, is the knowledge that what you are saying is exactly what your text says, so that your words have a proper claim to be received as the Word of God.’
3. The expository sermon must have a doctrinal substructure. Even though, as just noted, Simeon strongly objected to the artificial imposition of any doctrinal system on to the text, and even though a sermon should not be turned into a doctrinal lecture, or be overloaded with theological terminology, nevertheless the expositor should know his doctrine, and be able to open up his text in the light of the more general truths and principles revealed by God. An individual text is to be expounded in the light of the analogy of faith, ‘i.e., in terms of the broad framework of doctrinal truth which the Bible embodies.’ Simeon’s sermons abound in formulations of the great doctrines of the Christian faith – God, creation, sin, the plan of salvation, atonement, the church, and so on.
4. The expository sermon must have evangelical content. It will set forth the gospel as both a revelation and a remedy. In continually seeking to cast light on the twin themes of sin and grace expository preaching will seek to humble the sinner, exalt Christ, and promote holiness. For Simeon, as for Paul, Christ crucified was the sum and substance of the message. ‘The preacher is not handling his texts biblically, Simeon would say, unless he is seeing and setting them in their proper relation to Christ. If the expositor finds himself out of sight of Calvary, that shows that he has lost his way.’
5. The expository sermon must have a theocentric perspective. The real subject of Scripture is not man and his religion, but God and his glory. We tend to preach about man – his needs, problems and responsibilities. Consequently, our thoughts of God are small and sentimental. But Simeon would tell us that we cannot hope for God to honour our preaching unless we honour him by giving him his rightful place.
Let the preacher conscientiously observe these five things in his preparation. And let him be in earnest about the need to glorify God and seek his grace. This earnestness will come, not from correct methodology, but from the preacher’s walk with his God. As Donald Coggan wrote of Simeon:-
“The quality of his preaching was but a reflection of the quality of the man himself. And there can be little doubt that the man himself was largely made in the early morning hours which he devoted to private prayer and the devotional study of the Scriptures. It was his custom to rise at 4 a.m., light his own fire, and then devote the first four hours of the day to communion with God. Such costly self-discipline made the preacher. That was primary. The making of the sermon was secondary and derivative.”