Saturday, July 24, 2010

Wounded in the house of my friends? #2

See yesterday’s blog for an introduction to this. Now, now – don’t be lazy. You only have to scroll down a little bit.

3. Sermon or lecture Once, argues Murray, ‘lecture’ in preaching circles meant what is now meant by expository preaching. Lloyd-Jones called his work on Romans ‘lectures’, but ‘conceived the contents of his Ephesians series as ‘sermons’ and anyone comparing… can quickly see the difference.

Well, yes – OK. There are different types of sermons, different purposes in mind, differing congregations, even. Yet (as Murray readily acknowledges) Lloyd-Jones’ ‘Ephesians’ series proceeded consecutively through the whole book. Nothing is proved – or even indicated – by this point, I think.

4. What helps the hearer most is best ‘At the end of the day, the best preaching is that which helps the hearers most, and in that connection the track record of the consecutive ‘expository’ method is not impressive.’ The danger is, Murray says, that the preacher becomes only a commentator; and ‘a sermon needs a text as the basis for a memorable message,’ especially if the preacher is not to introduce a whole series of ideas into the sermon and lose clear, over-all lessons.

The weakness here though is that Murray is criticising badly-done expository preaching and using it as a reason to call the very form into question – except in the hands of a favoured very few. In simple logic, that isn’t adequate: the remedy for poor preaching of any type is to improve it.

And the passage reads as if there are no dangers associated with ‘the other’ type (or types). Of course, Murray knows that there are. For example – a text may become a pretext: it may be ‘expounded’ in such a way that has no reference to the context at all. Spurgeon himself was not immune from this danger! (Nor was Lloyd-Jones: his sermon on ‘Revival’ in the midst of his Ephesians series is inspiring, but not warranted by the context.)

Too many tyros have tried to preach verse-by-verse through major books of Scripture with near-disastrous results. It is arguable that this is one of the reasons why ‘reformed’ preaching has, in more than one place, been criticised as ‘heavy’ or plain ‘dull’.

Well, indeed; I remember suffering a series of verse-by-verse expositions of Jeremiah! But the preacher saw eventually that it wasn’t a good idea. It may be, however, that reformed preaching is criticised as ‘dull’ because too many reformed preachers are ‘dull’ – or, indeed, are not really preachers at all. Is there any evidence that they would be less dull if they abandoned the consecutive method?

5. The best ‘fit’ for evangelistic preaching ‘Evangelistic preaching does not best fit the ‘expository’ mode; in fact, where the ‘expository’ is exclusively used, true evangelistic preaching to heart and conscience commonly disappears.’

There’s some truth in the ‘fit’ argument – though I suspect that where evangelistic preaching has disappeared other factors weigh heavier. (‘But there’s never an unsaved person there’). In fact, many preachers haven’t a clue how to preach evangelistically. They’ve no idea what interests the unbeliever, or how to excite a proper interest in the unbeliever, or how to get hold of an unbeliever’s attention before the sermon ‘proper’ begins. (I remember overhearing a surgeon say to a patient, ‘You need an operation or you’ll die; but I can’t operate on you while you’re behaving in this way, otherwise you’ll die on the table and that will damage my reputation.’ Brutal – but the patient listened to every word that followed!)

However, there’s another side to the ‘fit’ argument. Some parts of the Bible are written with an evangelistic purpose. John’s gospel is the supreme example: ‘these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name,’ (20:31). Frankly, if a man is preaching from any part of John’s gospel and cannot see the evangelistic application, he either does not understand the passage or does not understand the gospel. Or take the Acts of the Apostles: Lloyd-Jones' last evangelistic series of the Westminster years was on that great book. He treated it very differently from 'Romans' or 'Ephesians' - but it was consecutive and expository, passionate and clear. Choose the passage/book right, and consecutive exposition is a superb way of preaching evangelistically.

So, is Iain Murray right to sound a caution? Yes, I think he is. We’re not to be slaves to method. We have to be prepared to find out what ‘works best’ for us – and best helps our hearers. We have to consider the possibility that we ourselves might be ‘dull’ and ‘heavy’. And certainly we have to make sure that every sermon we preach can stand alone: as Iain D Campbell says on the blog referenced yesterday, ‘At last, I know that I am committed to two things: to a stand-alone sermon, and to a Christ-exalting sermon. The first is necessary because it is just possible that someone may wander into church, not having heard the gospel before, and hearing it now for the first and last time. In that case, it will not do simply to refer to last week's sermon, or anticipate next week's. Each sermon must be a study in itself, a complete unit, which can be transported out of the church and into the life of the hearer.’

But I think Murray overstates it. The thing the church needs most is good expository preaching. It doesn’t have to take as long as Lloyd-Jones typically did – see here, for example, to discover how another preacher did it.

Above all, let us labour to be both accurate and passionate, whether we preach consecutively or not. Years ago I taught a preaching class and asked ‘Which is most important in a sermon – to be sound, or to be interesting?’ Everyone of them thought ‘sound’ was more important. I disagree – to be sound but boring borders on criminal. Both are equally important.

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