(For over two decades, John MacArthur has served as pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California. In that span of years the church has grown from 450 to 5,000 members. Over 10,000 worshippers gather each week in three Sunday worship services. But his ministry has been extended world-wide throuugh Word of Grace ministries and his radio program, “Grace to You,” now heard on 400 radio stations coast-to-coast. Over 8-million tapes if his messages have extended his ministry around the globe. MacArthur was interviewed in Orlando, Florida by Preaching associate editor R. Albert Mohler, Jr.),
Preaching: How would you define biblical preaching?
MacArthur: Biblical preaching is the mode of preaching in which the text of Scripture and the truths of Scripture are explained and articulated. You can go far beyond that, but biblical preaching is that which explains the Bible in terms of its text and the truths that specific text delineates.
Through the years, I have termed this a process of “principle-izing” the text. It’s not enough to explain the text — this word means that and this word means this — unless you take the next step and draw the principle. That is theology. So biblical preaching is articulating theology in a powerful, convincing, persuasive way — that which is true about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, man, time, and eternity.
Preaching: How has your understanding of biblical preaching changed over the course of your ministry?
MacArthur: I don’t really think that it has changed. When I began my ministry at Grace Community Church twenty-two years ago (and this is the only church I have pastored), my goal was to exegete Scripture — not for the sake of exegesis but for the sake of eliciting out of the text the truths that God put in Scripture and then pounding those truths into the minds of the congregation through some powerful communicative process. That hasn’t changed at all. My study habits haven’t changed, nor has my approach. I certainly know more now — the well is a little deeper — but I can honestly say that my theology has not changed.
But this is also true: people seem to have an increasing tolerance for that kind of preaching in many circles. I can trace certain trends and a visible process over the past twenty-two years. When I first came to this church as pastor, I started to preach this way and people flooded the place. It was an interesting time. It was just after the publication of The Living Bible — for what it is worth — and that certainly gave people a fresh insight into Scripture. Then came the New American Standard Version, the “Jesus Movement,” Calvary Chapel, and the intensive interest in personal Bible study. People came to church carrying Bibles with covers featuring a dove and a cross, and all that. Christian bookstores and publishers began to flourish. Maranatha Music hit — and Christian music exploded.
I really think that one hundred years from now the 1970s and the early 1980s will look like a revival — and that period really was. There was a tremendous hunger for the Word of God, a tremendous interest in expository preaching, a tremendous and fresh new interest in some doctrine. We began to teach and it was in demand. Our church exploded and grew. People wanted me to speak here and there and everywhere.
I’m saying the same things now I was saying then, but the climate is so different that I am now a problem in some circles. I am not doing anything differently but we have gone through that revival and now, on the other side, we find ourselves in a media approach to the church — a pragmatic kind of approach in which the church is focused on marketing strategies and all that kind of thing.
We have thrown the door open to every kind of theology. We want to embrace everybody, and that leads to a low level of tolerance for those who resist the embrace. I have lived through this transition; what I do isn’t different, what I say isn’t different, but the climate is very different.
Preaching: You say that your study habits have not changed. Just how do you get from text to sermon and how do you prepare your messages?
MacArthur: I generally preach through books of the Bible – with an emphasis on the New Testament. Early on, I felt that the Lord wanted me to focus on the New Testament, so I went to college and took four years of Greek and three more in seminary.
The goal I set for myself when I entered the ministry was to preach expository messages through the entire New Testament, which I am still trying to do. With this method, I always know where I am. I take up a unit of thought — a paragraph — and I know every week where I’m going to go. Through that process I will be introduced to themes in my study that will launch me off on a special series of topics, but they are almost always connected to the text. What I basically do is spend Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of every week in preparation, and I still do that. I did it in my early years, and I am still at it three days a week. It takes a day and a half for the morning sermon and a day and a half for the evening message.
I start by reading the text. I know what is coming because I am preaching contextual messages. I have anticipated its content. I take the text and read it repeatedly so that I have it clearly in mind, and then I begin to view things through the text. When I hit Wednesday, I go to the original language and really dissect the text so I know what I am dealing with. I want to know what it says. That’s really what I am after: What does the text say?
I want to make sure that I have dealt with all the problems, all the issues, all the grammar, all the syntax, all the word study or whatever is involved. Then I take an 8 1/2 by 14 inch pad of paper and copiously take down all that data. By then I really have a feel for that unit of Scripture in its context.
From that, the second step is for me to expose myself to commentaries — taking advantage of past illumination so that I don’t reinvent the wheel. I enjoy commentaries because they give me a sense of how the text has been interpreted within a range of theological frameworks. These are helpful, whether they are coming from hardline Calvinism, all the way over to Arminian, sacramentalist, or other systems. I enjoy a breadth of exposure to commentaries because I get a feel for how other theological systems have interpreted the text.
I rarely read other books on a given text because I am looking for context, but once in a while I will. I might read through fifteen commentaries. Then, if I come across a special book or journal article on that text, I will get that as well. All of that data goes into the grist.
By the time I have framed a main idea — a main proposition that I will build the sermon around — the text begins to fall into a sequential pattern. That structural pattern – a series of points — is the third step in the process. That’s when I refine it down to what I want to say. The last thing I do is to put in illustrations. I primarily use biblical illustrations — those which come directly from other biblical texts. I do this for several reasons: One, they not only add interest but bring authority. Two, they teach as they illustrate. Three, they continue to familiarize the congregation with texts throughout Scripture.
Preaching: You are not hesitant to direct the congregation to the text — and to keep them in the text.
MacArthur: No, not at all. In fact, that’s the key to my preaching. I keep them ever in the text. I have found that it’s much easier for the congregation to follow me if I stay in the text than if I walk around it.
It is also vitally important that they have a sense of adventure. There is a sense in which they must know that I cannot tell them everything about this text. They must expect the text to unfold and explode in their own minds at some point. With every text they should know that there is something beyond the obvious. If the hearers are not really in the text, they will not be able to see it. I am not going to berate what is obvious. I’m not going to hammer away at what they can read for themselves.
You know, the average “expository” preacher I hear reads the text, states the obvious, and tells stories about it. But the text holds some truths and meaning that the average layperson does not have the tools or the time to draw out. I need to unfold those things in a way that will excite the hearer — at least that’s the goal. I keep them in the text with the promise that something is going to unfold — something very, very important that they will miss unless they are with me in the text.
I set the address repeatedly. That is, I refer time and again to chapter and verse. I also repeat where we have been. “Now remember, we said this, and then we said this, and now we are saying this. The persons sitting in the congregation tune in and tune out — that is a part of the hearing process. If they tune back in and can’t find where we are in the text, they become frustrated because they have lost the context. So I repeat where we are throughout the sermon, hopefully enough times to pull them back in again and get them back into the flow.
Preaching: How foreign is the biblical world to the average resident of southern California? How do congregations respond to expository preaching in an age when they no longer recognize much of the Bible?
MacArthur: Well, the biblical world is exceedingly foreign to southern California — and America as a whole. There is no religious tradition. People would say to me: “You know, you are completely unrealistic in attempting to do expository preaching in a southern California context. Everybody’s into relationships, into making their world more comfortable, and you are completely out of touch!”
Our experience at Grace Community Church has proven that advice to be absolutely opposite to the truth. The more faithfully we exposit the Word of God the more powerful our ministry becomes — and we watch that happen week after week after week.
We have a baptism service every Sunday night and we baptize from five to twenty people each week. Some of this comes from listening to expository preaching but most of it is due to the fact that our people are strong in the Word and in the Lord so they reproduce themselves. We believe that the church is gathered together for worship and then scatters to evangelize.
In truth, I am not attempting to preach to the unregenerate southern Californian; I’m working to build up a church and let the church multiply. Unbelievers come to Christ every week.
Preaching: Give us a brief sketch of the history of Grace Community Church.
MacArthur: The church is now thirty-five years old, and I have been pastor there for twenty-two years. Grace Community Church was founded by a Methodist who had been associate pastor of another church in the San Fernando valley. He died of a heart attack and was followed by a Baptist. He also died while pastor of the church. Neither of those pastors had made enough out of theology to make any difference apparent.
At that time the church was a strong, young church in a strong, young community. They were reaching kids through a very aggressive youth ministry and the church was full of young people. When I became pastor in February 1969 the church had about 450 members but it was alive and vibrant. The church had acquired property in a very good location and it had a good profile with great visibility.
So I came when the church was thirteen years old. My goal was not really to build a church. I really didn’t have that kind of desire. My first goal was not to lose the people who were there! When a new pastor comes it is often followed by a bunch of people leaving. I said, “Lord, just keep them here.” It was a sovereign situation.
There were certain factors at work which made what I was doing particularly “on-target.” The greatest of these was the new interest in Bible study coming out of traditional Christianity. All of a sudden, people were reading the Bible and they wanted to know what it meant. The youth movement and the Jesus Movement had both taken place and there was a tremendous enthusiasm and openness about the Christian faith.
The church just took off and doubled every two years for about eight years. It went to 800, then to 1600, then to 3200 at just that kind of pace. There was no advertising, no promotion, lousy music; nothing but an incredible appetite for the teaching of the Word of God.
I would also add that I have pastored four churches in one place. The first church was that 450-member congregation which then exploded and grew. It was an exciting place where you couldn’t do anything wrong. The second church was the big church that eventually arose. People were coming in who had no experience of the growth, very little understanding of what we had been through, and they expected everything to be perfect.
The third church came in the late 1980s when God seemed to take His hand of blessing off of the congregation. It was a very trying time. We are now in the fourth church, which is in a euphoric period of unbelievable growth. I am one of the few guys who finds out what is on the other side of that experience with church number three!
Preaching: Are you saying that the grass is sometimes greener in the same place — only later?
MacArthur: Exactly – church number four is like spring. I think churches have seasons. We went through winter and this is spring again and everything is growing. I see the sovereign hand of God at work. We had nothing to do with it when it was growing, and I don’t think we had anything to do with it when we were being tested. I think it was God’s purifying hand doing His work.
Preaching: We live in a society which rejects the theological and the church has increasingly joined the secular resistance. You have been a voice crying in the anti-theological wilderness. How do you see the present challenge?
MacArthur: Today’s climate is almost anti-doctrine. I just completed a series of sermons on spiritual discernment, trying to attack the very obvious lack of discernment in the churches. Not only is the church not discerning — it is increasingly hostile to anyone who is. It sees anyone with discernment as a threat to unity and love.
I made this statement in those sermons: The evangelical church would never buy liberal theology. But the Enemy knew that — and so he has sold us a bill of goods in liberal hermeneutics. Unchecked, we will fall into liberal theology. That’s the frightening reality of it all — the hermeneutic of love and acceptance and unity destroys all discernment.
One very well known preacher took me out recently and said: “Your books are divisive.” My response was, “Of course they are — that’s not news. If you take a strong stand on an issue and you take a firm conviction doctrinally, you have just divided.” Some will stand on one side and others on the opposite side. But there is very little tolerance for that.
It is a great concern to me that the evangelical church is marked by such a lack of theological preaching, which results in a lack of discernment and an uneducated sort of theologically illiterate congregation which can be led astray by every element of Satan’s cunning and craftiness.
Preaching: That lack of discernment has led Christians into an open embrace of the self-movement: psychologies, theologies, and practical models which revolve essentially around the self as the source of all meaning and significance.
MacArthur: That’s why I wrote my newest book, Our Sufficiency in Christ. If you really pin me to the wall, I must say that the three issues I dealt with in that book have virtually devastated the church. I don’t think we begin to realize just how bad our current situation is until we detect how little interest there is in pursuing Christ, like Paul wrote about in Philippians 3. There Paul is writing about pressing toward the mark and that mark is Christ and Christlikeness — and that was everything! The church has largely abandoned that.
Psychology is by definition humanistic, evolutionary, and atheistic. It developed as an alternative to Christianity as a way of explaining human problems. I sat recently with a prominent Christian psychologist and asked him, “What part does psychology play in sanctification?” There was no answer. It plays no part — it can’t. If it has no part in sanctification, then what is its purpose in the life of a Christian?
You often hear, “Well, some people can’t get sanctified because they have psychological problems that must be removed before they can start the process.” That is horrendous theology — an absolutely unbelievable theology which says that God can do His work only after a good therapist has jump-started the patient. The fact that the church has bought into that kind of thinking is mind-boggling.
I must compare this to the situation in the Soviet Union, where I have been doing a great deal of work. There is no interest in this kind of self-psychology over there. The Soviet church has experienced seventy-three years of total persecution. In the United States we are consumed with artificial problems — “I don’t like my nose.” “I don’t like the way someone treats me” — all this cosmetic kind of stuff. We have really cheapened ourselves.
The issue of pragmatism has also brought a host of problems — the idea that you must market the church. And mysticism is still around. In the history of the church, mysticism is old hat, but it is still here in the idea that truth somehow rises up from within me through my own spiritual experiences. What really frightens me is that the church has bought into this all over again and if you say anything against it, you are looked at as unloving and divisive. You don’t deal with the issue, you simply castigate the criticism as divisive.
Preaching: And the worldview you describe is often brought to church by people looking for the preacher to render nothing more than therapy. How does the preacher — who has the inescapable responsibility to expound the Word of God — address people who come to church hoping to leave feeling better about themselves?
MacArthur: Let me put it this way: if you are driving down Roscoe Boulevard and you saw our church, you would feel good about it because the grass and the flowers and the landscaping are so beautiful. The church has been awarded a “Valley Beautiful” citation because we believe that God is a God of beauty, and His people ought to take care of things to reflect on this conviction.
When you come in the church campus, you’d meet some very nice people who are hosts and hostesses. They would take you to your place and make you feel warm and welcome. When you enter the sanctuary you would hear a great orchestra and wonderful music.
You would be feeling very good — until I get up to preach. As soon as I get up, that good and comfortable feeling will disappear, because my goal in preaching is to confront you with what God has to say about life. For all of us, that is convicting. I don’t have the goal of making these people feel good — to try to fix their problems in life or ease their marriage. I believe that you live out your theology. Theology becomes the controlling factor in all of our relationships. So my goal is to get them thinking rightly about God, His blessings, and His demands.
Preaching: How should the preacher measure effectiveness and faithfulness in the pulpit?
MacArthur: Well, I think there is only one genuine measuring standard. First, I must measure my own life before God. I must first of all be a man of God. What I say is the overflow of who I am. I will never be powerful in the pulpit if I am not speaking out of the vortex of a dynamic relationship with the living God. That is where it starts.
The measure of my ministry is this: was he a steward of the mysteries of God? Did he guard the treasure so that from the beginning to the end of his life he kept the purity of truth? Did he faithfully proclaim the truth as it should be proclaimed? Those are the marks of a faithful steward.
I am so passionately burdened not to misinterpret Scripture. I am driven by my understanding of Scripture. It drives everything in my life because I take God’s statement to be true when He said, “I have exalted my Word above my name” (Psalm 138:2). Nothing is more precious to God than His Word, and every time I interpret a passage I exercise a sacred trust. I’m driven by that — compelled to be a steward of that treasure and to regard it with all the faculties and spiritual resources that I have.
Preaching: What is your exhortation to fellow preachers?
MacArthur: I can’t do any better than Paul: “Preach the Word in season and out of season; Reprove, rebuke, and exhort with all longsuffering” (2 Timothy 4:2). If you understand that verse, you understand the ministry.
The Word — preach it! Be quick to preach the Word whether it seems appropriate or not. The culture will tell you that it is inappropriate and that it doesn’t matter. But preach the Word.
The essence of that preaching is reproof and rebuke and exhortation. People will not always like it but that is what will transform their lives. Don’t succumb to those people looking for teachers who will tickle their ears, make them feel good and raise their self-esteem. They are seeking a diversion from the gospel.
When you preach the Word with faithfulness, you can say with Paul, “I don’t have to worry about going to face my Lord. I’m ready because I have been faithful to His charge.” The measure of your ministry is the truth of your preaching and your faithfulness to guard the treasure and pass it on.

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