C.H. Spurgeon is known as ‘the Prince of Preachers’. It is worthwhile, then, enquiring about his attitude towards, and practice of, expository preaching.
Peter Masters considers this in an article entitled ‘Expository Preaching – Benefits and Pitfalls.’
Masters begins defines expository preaching as ‘preaching that draws the message from the biblical text, clearly and methodically, honouring the sense of the text, and the style of communication employed.’
He outlines some of the benefits of expository preaching:
- It demonstrates that the Bible is the supreme authority for all that is taught.
- It helps the preacher to suppress his own personal opinions.
- It obliges the preacher to everything that is in Scripture.
- It shows people the plan and purpose of an entire book of the Bible.
But there are, says, Masters, also some pitfalls.
- An expository series may proceed too slowly, so that people miss the wood for the trees.
- Expository preaching may foster a kind of ‘priestcraft’, giving the impression that the preacher is omniscient, and that his poor hearers cannot possibly read and understand the Bible for themselves.
- It may inhibit the work of the Spirit, treating diverse parts of Scripture – parables, psalms, miracles and so on – in the same methodical, didactic way.
- It does not lend itself to the regular preaching of evangelistic messages.
- Expository preaching often lacks adequate application.
- Yet another problem with consecutive expository preaching is that too much time may be spent in recapitulating the previous week’s sermon.
For an example of ‘applied expository preaching’, Masters turns to C.H. Spurgeon.
Text: Psalm 23.4 – ‘The valley of the shadow of death’ (Full text can be found here).
Masters regards this sermon as ‘a masterclass in expository thoughtfulness.’
Although Spurgeon recognises that his text could apply to a number of kinds of trial, he focuses his attention on the experience of depression.
1. What sort of place is this?
(a) This valley is an ‘exceedingly gloomy’ place. The sunshine of assurance and joy is absent.
(b) It is a dangerous place. In the valley are robbers, wild animals, and snakes. So, in depression, dangers of despondency, or doubt, or unbelief, or self-pity abound.
(c) It is a place shrouded in mystery. A person suffering from depression may not know what the gloom is all about, or what has caused it.
(d) It is a lonely, solitary, place. No-one on earth can truly share in one’s grief or depression, still less take it away.
(e) It is an oft-travelled place. The sufferer may feel alone, but he is not the only one to take this route through the hills.
(f) It is not an unhallowed place. We don’t have to sin in it.
2. What is the attitude of the pilgrim travelling through this valley?
(a) He remains calm. ‘I will fear no evil’.
(b) He makes steady progress. He ‘walks’ through this valley.
(c) He expects to emerge the other side of the valley. He does not allow himself to imagine that he will be lost in this place.
(d) He renounces fear. ‘I will fear no evil’.
Masters concludes that the key to the construction of an expository sermon such as this is ‘prayerful thoughtfulness’. The preacher’s main points flowed from the text, and were not simply tagged on to it.
Masters then turns to a second example from Spurgeon.
Text: Acts 17.3-4 – ‘A woman named Damaris’
Before describing Spurgeon’s approach to this unpromising text, Masters comments:
‘If you were to apply the modern evangelical hermeneutic to this text, you could discuss the context and the occasion, the preaching on Mars Hill, and the rejection of Paul by the Athenians. You could tell people about the great pride of his hearers, and that some scoffed, and some were courteous and polite; and very few people were saved. Concerning Damaris, you would find very little to say, except that she was a woman, and that it is useful to have a name. You could possibly explain what the name Damaris meant, but your rationalistic, technical method of expounding would show you nothing else.’
Among the points Spurgeon draws out are these:
- All converts are very precious in evil times.
- She was evidently not ashamed to confess Christ
- Equally clearly, she was willing to swim against the tide, to stand out from the crowd.
- Men and women are equally precious before God.
- Her obscurity did not diminish her preciousness in God’s sight.
- Let us not desire to be known or conspicuous.
Masters urges the preacher to think for himself (not relying overmuch on the commentaries) in order to bring out such truths from a text. This method does, of course, have its own dangers – fancifulness being a notable one – but we should not allow ourselves to be tied down to the modern hermeneutical methods.
Masters proceeds to give his own example of such exposition.
Text: James 4:14 – ‘For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.’
An evangelistic sermon on this text could begin with the great question: What is life? It is a mist or breath.
Characteristics of vapour
- It is shapeless. Such is life without God.
- It is unpredictable. Our lives, too, are unpredictable, and we may be unprepared for the end of life, and what lies thereafter.
- It is unprotectable. It cannot be walled in. Our lives are subject to manipulating influences, from the media, from peer pressure, from social fashions. A life without God is vulnerable and susceptible.
- It is dependent, relying on the air in which it is suspended. We breath God’s air, and eat his food, and yet refuse to acknowledge either his goodness or our accountability before him.
It would not have occurred to me to refer to Spurgeon’s method of preaching as ‘expository’. Masters insists that it is, because (in his view) all of the main points arise from the text itself, at least by implication.