Expository Preaching: Structure and Progression

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In my last post, I shared some thoughts from Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the topic of expository preaching, and why expository preaching is more than simply going through a passage verse-by-verse and giving a “running commentary” of disconnected thoughts, but that an expository sermon is to have a structure similar to how a piece of music or a building has structure.

(for more on Lloyd-Jones, check out: Preaching While the Bombs Fell)

Here are some further thoughts from him on how to do that:

Distilling the Message of the Text

The burden of your message arises from understanding the passage. If you have truly understood the verse or passage, you will arrive at a particular doctrine, which is a part of the whole message of the Bible. It is your business to search for this and to seek it diligently. You have to question your text, to put questions to it, and especially this question— What is this saying? What is the particular doctrine here, the special message? In the preparation of a sermon nothing is more important than that.

To do this, I often tell people to boil down their entire message into one sentence. I do the same for every sermon I write.

Showing People Why it Matters to Them

You then proceed to consider the relevance of this particular doctrine to the people who are listening to you. This question of relevance must never be forgotten.

This is an important point that is often missed by preachers and teachers. I once heard someone ask the question: “Have you ever heard a sermon that was doctrinally accurate, but it was so boring it made you want to cry?”

I have. You probably have too. Why was that? This person argued that the reason was because: although what the person said was true, you didn’t understand why it mattered to you.

This isn’t about trying to “tickle people’s ears,” or “trying to make the Bible more interesting.” The fact is: the Bible is interesting. It is compelling. But if we are not helping people see why it is so very interesting and compelling, then we are failing them in our role as Bible teachers.

As Paul wrote to the Corinthians: Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others… God making his appeal through us: we implore you on behalf of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:11, 20)

You are setting out to influence these people and the whole of their lives and outlook. Obviously, therefore, you have got to show the relevance of all this. You are not an antiquary lecturing on ancient history or on ancient civilisations, or something like that. The preacher is speaking to people who are alive today and confronted by the problems of life, and therefore you have to show that this is not some academic or theoretical matter… but that this message is vitally important for them, and that they must listen with the whole of their being, because this really is going to help them.

Structure: Progressively Building a Towards a Conclusion

You now come to the division of this matter into propositions or headings, or heads—whatever you may like to call them. The object of these headings or divisions is to make clear this central doctrine or proposition.

The arrangement of these propositions or heads is a very important matter. You have a doctrine, an argument, a case which you want to argue out, and to reason, and to develop with the people. So, obviously, you must arrange your headings and your divisions in such a way that point number one leads to point number two, and point number two leads to point number three, etc.

Each one should lead to the next, and work ultimately to a definite conclusion. Everything is to be so arranged as to bring out the main thrust of this particular doctrine. The point I am emphasising is that there must be progression in the thought, that each one of these points is not independent, and is not, in a sense, of equal value with all the others. Each is a part of the whole, and in each you must be advancing and taking the matter further on. You are not simply saying the same thing a number of times, you are aiming at an ultimate conclusion.

You must end on a climax, and everything should lead up to it in such a way that the great truth stands out dominating everything that has been said, and the listeners go away with this in their minds.

Making Application Along the Way and at the End

It is important that you should have been applying what you have been saying as you go along. There are many ways of doing this. You can do so by asking questions and answering them, or in various other ways; but you must apply the message as you go along.

This again shows that you are not just lecturing, that you are not dealing with an abstract or academic or theoretical matter; but that this is a living matter which is of real concern to the people in the whole of their life and being. So you must keep on applying what you are saying.

Then to make absolutely certain of this, when you have ended the reason and the argument, and have arrived at this climax, you apply it all again perhaps with an exhortation, a series of questions or a series of terse statements. But it is vital to the sermon that it should always end on this note of application or of exhortation.

(All quotations taken from Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Preaching and Preachers, pp. 86-88)

What is Expository Preaching? – Some Thoughts from Martyn Lloyd-Jones

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The approach to preaching that we champion at White Fields is called “expository preaching.” I’m also involved with a movement called the Expositors Collective – which will have its next event in Bradenton, Florida on Nov 30-Dec 1, and which has a great podcast you should check out!

What is Expository Preaching?

The root word of “expository” is “expose” – and expository preaching is all about exposing the meaning of the text, as opposed to imposing a meaning upon the text. 

The goal of expository preaching is to let the Bible speak for itself, rather than using it as a “prooftext” to validate what we already think or what we really want to say. As opposed to coming to the Scriptures with a pre-conceived notion or goal and then looking for verses which back that up, expository preaching/teaching is focused on coming to the Bible and understanding what it has to say to us.

For this reason, we usually teach and preach through the Bible in a verse-by-verse fashion, but expository preaching can be done when addressing topics as well.

However, just teaching verse-by verse does not necessarily equal expository preaching. An expository sermon aims to expose as clearly as possible the meaning of the text, which means that it will have an effective structure for doing so, and will bring in other biblical texts to reach that goal.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Expository Sermons vs. Running Commentary

Consider these words from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ classic: Preaching and Preachers

A sermon should always be expository. But, immediately, that leads me to say something which I regard as very important indeed in this whole matter. A sermon is not a running commentary on, or a mere exposition of, the meaning of a verse or a passage or a paragraph.

I emphasise this because there are many today who have become interested in what they regard as expository preaching but who show very clearly that they do not know what is meant by expository preaching. They think that it just means making a series of comments, or a running commentary on a paragraph or a passage or a statement. They take a passage verse by verse; and they make their comments on the first, then they go on to the next verse, and do the same with that, then the next, and so on. When they have gone through the passage in this way they imagine they have preached a sermon. But they have not; all they have done is to make a series of comments on a passage.

I would suggest that far from having preached a sermon such preachers have only preached the introduction to a sermon! This, in other words, raises the whole question of the relationship of exposition to the sermon. My basic contention is that the essential characteristic of a sermon is that it has a definite form, and that it is this form that makes it a sermon. It is based upon exposition, but it is this exposition turned or moulded into a message which has this characteristic form.

A phrase that helps to bring out this point is one which is to be found in the Old Testament in the Prophets where we read about ‘the burden of the Lord’. The message has come to the prophet as a burden, it has come to him as an entire message, and he delivers this. That is something, I argue, which is not true of a mere series of comments upon a number of verses.

I maintain that a sermon should have form in the sense that a musical symphony has form. A symphony always has form, it has its parts and its portions. The divisions are clear, and are recognised, and can be described; and yet a symphony is a whole. You can divide it into parts, and yet you always realise that they are parts of a whole, and that the whole is more than the mere summation or aggregate of the parts.

One should always think of a sermon as a construction, a work which is in that way comparable to a symphony. In other words a sermon is not a mere meandering through a number of verses; it is not a mere collection or series of excellent and true statements and remarks. All those should be found in the sermon, but they do not constitute a sermon. What makes a sermon a sermon is that it has this particular ‘form’ which differentiates it from everything else.

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Preaching and Preachers (pp. 82-84). Zondervan

He then goes on to make the point that “Spirit-led” does not mean structureless. We must not assume that structure and organization is at odds with being open to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

The ultimate goal of expository preaching is to let God’s Word speak and be understood as clearly, and with appropriate force upon the life of the hearers, that they might know God’s Word to them.

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Why Church Attendance Isn’t Like Rental Car Insurance

I came across this article in my Apple News feed this morning, posted by a major news source:

Americans still believe in God, so why do so many of us see it as just optional rental car insurance?

The article cites research which shows that despite the fact that 80% of Americans believe in God, church attendance is decreasing. Americans aren’t necessarily giving up on God, they’re just not going to church like they once did.

Contributing factors are our American culture, which is radically individualistic. It’s not a stretch to say that our modern Western culture is the most individualistic culture which has ever existed in the history of the world.

(Read: Toxic Loneliness and How to Break Out)

Furthermore, the Bible has been placed in the hands of the people. No one has to go to church any more in order to hear what the Bible says. Sermons are available via podcast and there are more Christian books on the market than one could probably ever read in a lifetime. Thus, people are increasingly considering church to be optional rather than vital.

The author of this article, a pastor, argues that the church as a community is irreplaceable and meets a deep spiritual need.

(Read: Why Go to Church If You Already Know It All? Here’s Why)

41aomdoo-sl-_sx325_bo1204203200_I am currently reading Martyn Lloyd Jones’ classic Preaching & Preachersbased on a series of lectures he gave back in 1969. Interestingly, he mentions the same issue as having existed at that time as well; the availability of journals, books, radio and television broadcasts of sermons or other Christian content had led many people to opt out of church because they felt they could feed their souls and connect with God on their own via these mediums, apart from the local church.

Here’s his response:

“This is a wrong approach because it is too individualistic. The man sits on his own reading his book. That is too purely intellectual in its approach, it is a matter of intellectual interest. The man himself is too much in control. What I mean is that if you do not agree with the book you put it down, if you do not like what you are hearing on the television you switch it off. You are an isolated individual and you are in control of the situation. Or, to put it more positively, that whole approach lacks the vital element of the Church.

Now the Church is a missionary body, and we must recapture this notion that the whole Church is a part of this witness to the Gospel and its truth and its message. It is therefore most important that people should come together and listen in companies in the realm of the Church. That has an impact in and of itself. I have often been told this. The preacher after all is not speaking for himself, he is speaking for the Church, he is explaining what the Church is and what these people are, and why they are what they are. 

Not only that, when a person comes into a church, to a body of people, he begins to get some idea of the fact that they are the people of God, and that they are the modern representatives of something that has been known in every age and generation throughout the centuries. This makes an impact. The person is not simply considering a new theory or a new teaching or a new idea. They are visiting or entering into something that has long history and tradition.

The person who thinks that all this can be done by reading, or by just looking at a television set, is missing the mysterious element in the life of the Church. What is this? It is what our Lord was suggesting when He said, ‘Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst.’ It is not a mere gathering of people; Christ is present. This is the great mystery of the Church. There is something in the very atmosphere of Christian people meeting together to worship God and to listen to the preaching of the Gospel.”

He then goes on to tell the story of a woman who had been involved in occult practices, who one time entered one of his church services when he pastored a small fellowship in Wales. She continued coming and eventually converted. When asked what kept her coming when she first started attending, she said that she sensed a “clean power” in their midst.

“All I am contending for is that when you enter a church, a society, a company of God’s people, there is a factor which immediately comes into operation, which is reinforced still more by the preacher expounding the Word in the pulpit; and that is why preaching can never be replaced by either reading or by watching television or any one of these other activities.”
(Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, pp. 52-55.)

Let us not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but let us encourage one another all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:25)

Why Martyn Lloyd-Jones Matters Today

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Recently I have been reading a book about Martyn Lloyd-Jones and the influence of his preaching. What I find most interesting is how relevant his approach to preaching is to our day. Here are a excerpts from the book to help you see what I mean:

Martyn Lloyd-Jones began his ministry in a time when biblical preaching was considered irrelevant. The common thought of the day was that people are not interested in nor have the ability to handle anything but short “homilies” or “sermonettes”. Churches around the UK were in decline and it was thought that things such as clubs, activities and entertainment were needed to attract people to churches. Martyn Lloyd-Jones did not agree with this; he felt that the greatest need in the church was for strong, biblical, doctrinal preaching.

Peter Lewis writes,

“Amidst the spiritual decline in post WWII England, this gifted expositor stood virtually alone in his commitment to biblical preaching.”

Having grown up in church (Calvinist Methodist {I didn’t even know there was such a thing!}), Martyn Lloyd-Jones claimed that he was only truly converted at age 25. He later described this turning point in his life:

“For many years I thought I was a Christian, when in fact I was not. It was only later that I came to see that I had no inner Christian, and became one. What I needed was preaching that would convict me of sin, but I never heard this. The preaching we had was always based on the assumption that we were all Christians.”

This experience had a profound impact on the way he preached later on in his ministry; he was always doing the work of an evangelist, because he knew what it was to be in church but not be in Christ.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ definition of good preaching was: theology coming through a man who is on fire.

Preaching, he believed, was God’s method, the primary means by which scripture is to be made known.

In this way, Lloyd-Jones stood with the Reformers and Puritans who insisted that preaching is the chief means by which the grace of God is administered to the church.

Hughes Olifant Old, one of the foremost experts on the history of preaching, states,

“the greatest impact of Lloyd-Jones on the English-speaking pulpit of today is the recovery of expository preaching.”

The attitudes and trends which characterized the times in which Martyn Lloyd-Jones began his ministry seem very similar to those of today. Thus, he stands as an example of a different, and may I say: better way.

Author Steven J. Lawson concludes,

“The hour is upon us for faithful men of God to step into pulpits around the world and preach the Word. The need has never been greater. In a day that clamours for churches to captitulate to the spirit of the age and use entertainment in order to draw crowds, the primacy of biblical preaching must be restored wherever the people of God gather to worship. As it was the need in the time of Lloyd-Jones, so it remains the need today for preachers to herald the Word in the power of the Holy Spirit in order to feed the flock and evangelize.”

See also: Preaching While the Bombs Fell

Preaching While the Bombs Fell

Just a few blocks from Buckingham Palace and a short walk from Big Ben and Westminster Abbey is a building which has been used to influence London and the world greatly.

Westminster Chapel, pastored by G. Campbell Morgan and then by Martyn Lloyd-Jones has served as a light to the city of London and to the UK for over 150 years.

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It was G. Campbell Morgan who invited Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who had studied to be a medical doctor rather than a minister, to come and serve with him and be his successor at Westminster Chapel.

Lloyd-Jones was from Wales, and had been serving at a small village church there. At the time, doctors were considered the true heroes of society, whereas Christianity was already in steep decline in Britain. To give up a career in medicine to pastor a small church was considered a fools errand by many, but Ll0yd-Jones’ decision to become a pastor rather than work as a medical doctor had been aided by something he had witnessed from one of his mentors as he was studying to be a doctor:

He witnessed a doctor who was at the top of his field, the most respected position in that society, who supposedly “had it all” – and yet he had fallen into despondency, hopelessness and depression because of a failed marriage. Having witnessed this, Lloyd-Jones would later say, helped him to decide that he wanted to help people in a way that went beyond just caring for their physical bodies, he wanted to be a doctor for the soul.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones became the pastor of Westminster Chapel in 1939, right before the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. The people of Great Britain knew what was coming: they had seen the aggressiveness of the German military, the how the Luftwaffe had no qualms about bombing highly populated areas. They knew that soon the war would probably come to London, and they were right.

In 1939, Martyn Lloyd-Jones preached a series of sermons which prepared his people for the war. He told them that whether the German bombs killed them or not, they should be prepared to stand before God, and he urged them to embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ as their hope.

Throughout the war, as people evacuated London, Martyn Lloyd-Jones continued to preach to those who gathered at Westminster Chapel. On one occasion, a bomb fell only a few yards from the church during a service, causing the plaster from the roof to fall on the heads of the congregation. When the bomb hit, Lloyd-Jones was praying. He paused for a moment, and then finished his prayer, and went on to preach his entire sermon.

Theologian J.I. Packer sat under Lloyd-Jones’ ministry and called him “the greatest man I ever knew – not just brilliant, but wise.”

Westminster Chapel continues its ministry in its efforts to be “a prophetic voice to London, the UK and the nations.” Their website here.

A documentary was made about Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ life and ministry a few years ago called Logic on Fire. Here’s the trailer for it: