Stephen F. Olford went to be with the Lord on August 29, 2004. His life and ministry touched countless people from the pulpit to the pew. He was known for his passionate and powerful expository preaching. His friends and colleagues affectionately called him “Prince of Preachers.” On a more personal level, for almost 35 years Dr. Olford was my friend, mentor, and my father in ministry.
Stephen Olford was no ordinary man. The extraordinary elements that seemed to characterize his life began even before his birth. He was born to missionary parents, Fredrick and Bessie Olford, on March 29, 1918. Fredrick Olford’s basic knowledge of medicine and the experience he had gained on the mission field caused him to anticipate possible complications with the birth of their first child. His concern prompted Fredrick and Bessie to make the thousand-mile trek to the British Colony of Northern Rhodesia. Fred walked every step of the way while Bessie was carried in a hammock by A-Chokwe men.
The first seventeen years of Olford’s life were spent in the heart of Africa where he witnessed first hand the power of God. His formative years in Africa flavored his preaching for the rest of his life. His sermons were often illustrated with exciting stories of his boyhood adventures and the miracles of God among the A-Chokwe tribe.
At age seventeen Stephen Olford left his home in Angola to live in England, where he would pursue his education to be an engineer. His college thesis project was carburetion. He developed a special carburetion system and took up motorcycle racing to demonstrate the efficiency of his invention. On his way home from a race on a cold rainy night he crashed his motorcycle and lay injured in the road for several hours. Pneumonia quickly set in. Doctors announced: Two weeks to live.
Laying on his death bed, embittered by his rebellion against the will of God and by his impending death, he received a letter from his father who had gone back to Africa to assist with a new missions project. It took tree months for a letter to reach England from Africa. But in God’s sovereignty the letter contained words that would forever change Stephen Olford’s life. His father wrote: Only one life, ‘Twill soon be past, Only what is done for Jesus will last.
Stephen fell under deep conviction. He slipped out of bed, dropped to his knees and cried out to God: Lord you have won and I own you as King of Kings and Lord of Lords…and Lord if you will heal my body I will serve you anywhere, anytime, at any cost. God answered that prayer and for the rest of his life he lived completely for the Glory of God.
Olford served as pastor for 21 years. His first church was Duke Street Baptist Church in Richmond, Surrey (London), England. F.B. Meyer, the noted orator, author and preacher was one of the first pastors of the Duke Street Congregation, which also had ties back to Charles Spurgeon. Following seven fruitful years of ministry at Duke Street, Olford moved from England to the United States in 1959, when he accepted the call to be pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in New York City where he served for 14 years.
From the pulpit of Calvary Baptist Church, Olford launched a ministry that circled the globe. By radio and television he ministered to the hearts of millions around the world. His reputation as preacher, pastor and Christian statesman swept across the country. His wider ministry took him to convention and conference platforms everywhere, especially among the Southern Baptist Convention. All along the way he had an increasing burden for pastors and the need to restore expository preaching to the pulpits of our churches.
Stephen Olford was an expositor. When defining expository preaching he would quote J.I. Packer, The true idea of expository preaching is that the preacher should become the mouthpiece of the text, opening it up and applying it as the word of God to his hearers, speaking in order that the text may be heard, and making each point from his text in such a manner that the hearers may discern the voice of God.1
However, Olford had his own working definition of expository preaching: Expository preaching is the Spirit-empowered explanation and proclamation of the text of God’s Word with due regard to the historical, contextual, grammatical and doctrinal significance of the given passage, with the specific object of invoking a Christ-transforming response.2 The reader is encouraged to note the last phrase of this definition, with the specific object of invoking a Christ-transforming response. Those who knew Stephen Olford knew that he always preached for the verdict; he called upon people to respond to God’s claims upon their lives.
Passion for exposition began in his boyhood days in Africa under the teaching of his godly missionary father. However, when he began his theological studies in London, he studied under the renowned expositor W. Graham Scroggie. Stephen Olford hardly gave a lecture on preaching without referencing Scroggie. He said Scroggie had a Golden Hammer (his way of describing how Scroggie could break open a text).
Olford taught his students the secrets he learned. Three fundamental questions must be asked of the text: 1. What is the Dominating Theme? The text can have more than one theme, but only one can be preached at a time. 2. What are the Integrating Thoughts? Outline and structure are found here. 3. What is the Motivating Thrust? The aim and purpose of the sermon are found here.
Olford was a passionate preacher, but he was also passionate about preaching. He would often say that the only thing that would ever replace preaching is greater preaching. His passion was expressed in this admonition to his students: Preaching is primary and expository preaching is paramount. And without any question, the crying need of the hour is to return to the apostolic injunction to ‘Preach the Word’ (2 Timothy 4:2).
In 1973, Stephen Olford left Calvary Baptist Church to enter a wider ministry focused on a ministry to ministers. His banner statement: Ministry to ministers is ministry to multitudes is still the theme and thrust of Olford Ministries International today. Olford devoted the rest of his life to promoting biblical exposition to the pulpits of local churches and training and equipping pastors and church leaders to lead and serve effectively.
Stephen Olford will always be remembered as an advocate of expository preaching. In 1993, while serving on the staff at Olford Ministries International, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Olford. I asked him to address his greatest concern for the modern church. He said: We are here in Memphis in our small attempt under God to try to encourage pastors to come back to expository preaching of God’s Word in the power of the Holy Spirit, because I believe that when the Word of God is proclaimed everything else flows from that. All of the evils I could talk about that I fear today, such as liberalism, humanism, syncretism and what Carl Henry calls ‘naturalism’, all of these evils are making an impact upon the church, headed by the devil and his minions. While all of that is true, there is only one thing that will drive that back, and that is the preaching of God’s Word.3
From the early years of his ministry, he always followed the expository model. Whether preaching in a city wide evangelistic campaign or the Keswick Convention in Keswick England, or in his church, his preaching was always the exposition of the Scriptures. During his years at Calvary Baptist Church he preached through the Book of Romans Sunday by Sunday for a total of 52 sermons. I have heard him say that the joy of his heart was to go to the pulpit on a Sunday morning and say: Turn in your Bible to Romans chapter 8 and verse 12, last week we ended with verse 11. He was fond of reminding us that he did not have to tell a catchy story or a humorous joke to get his people’s attention.
At the National Conference on Preaching in March 2004, Olford addressed the subject of preaching to spiritual needs, not ‘felt needs’. He said, “Modern ministers are more often prone to preach in a way that panders to the self-centered ‘felt needs’ of people while ignoring their deepest, eternal needs. Ministers must expound the Bible as God’s inerrant and eternal Word. So much preaching today is about ‘felt needs’. This type of preaching is nothing but pandering to the subjective needs of the human heart. Only the Holy Spirit can address real needs. Churches in America are hemorrhaging, losing upwards to 50,000 people each Sunday at the hands of a watered-down gospel that has failed to enliven their hearts with a steadfast, Spirit-wrought faith.”4
Olford believed that the Bible was relevant and that when systematically preached the Word of God would speak to each and every need of man’s life. This was a work he entrusted to the Holy Spirit.
Where did Stephen Olford’s power and passion in preaching come from? How did he acquire these spiritual qualities? For one thing, he believed that ministry issued out of life. He would tell preachers, “God is more concerned with who you are than what you do, and if who you are does not please Him, then what you do is virtually useless.”
Miss Victoria Kuhl, who served as Olford’s secretary for more than thirty years, made this observation: “I have seen him sick, I have seen him well; I have watched him laugh, I have seen him cry. In all the years I have known him he has never wavered in his character or in his commitment to the Lord. Ever and always there has been that eager pursuit after more holiness and conformity to Christ. You can’t be in his company long before you sense, ‘an other Presence’. Here is a man who never lost his glow of his first love for Christ. It is no wonder that the ‘shekinah’ shines through his face and comes through his message. He makes you want to stretch spiritually-and in every other way-and to emulate his example, even as he followed the Lord.”5 The secret to his power in the pulpit was his personal walk with Christ.
In an article entitled, Why I believe in Expository Preaching, Stephen Olford observed, “St Augustine once wrote: ‘When the Scriptures speak, God speaks’. I believe that with all my heart. That is what makes me an expositor. What I, or any other human, has to say is quite secondary; it is what God says that matters. My task as a preacher, is ‘rightly dividing the word of truth’ (2 Tim. 2:15).”6
As we remember Stephen F. Olford, may we hear and heed his admonition to us: Preach the Word.
Roger D. Willmore is Senior Pastor of Deerfoot Baptist Church, Trussville, AL, First vice-president, Alabama Baptist State Convention; and minister at large, Olford Ministries International.
1. Stephen Olford, Preaching the Word of God (Encounter Ministries, Inc., Memphis, TN, 1984,1989) p. 32
2. Stephen and David Olford, Anointed Expository Preaching, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1998) p. 69
3. Roger Willmore, The Preacher (Institute for Biblical Preaching, Memphis, TN, 1993) p.16
4. Jeff Robinson, Baptist Press Online, Minister must meet spiritual needs not ‘felt’ needs, March 23, 2004, Nashville, TN)
5. John Phillips, Only One Life, (Neptune, NJ; Loizeaux 1995) p. 298
6. Stephen Olford, The Preacher, Institute For Biblical Preaching, Memphis, TN, 1987), p. 3