Stephen Olford has had an illustrious career as an evangelist, pastor, preacher, and encourager of preachers. He is noted for his pastorates at Duke Street Baptist Church in Richmond, Surrey, England and Calvary Baptist Church in New York City. Currently he directs the Stephen F. Olford Center for Biblical Preaching in Memphis, Tennessee. Nearing the age of 80, he still maintains a full schedule of preaching and teaching. We sat down with him recently to talk about preaching.
Preaching: You are known for your strong emphasis on expository preaching. How have you come by your strong convictions regarding expository preaching?
Olford: In the first place, my training imparted to me the conviction that my only authority for speaking the Word of God was to speak the Word of God. “When the Bible speaks,” said St. Augustine, “God speaks.” After the teaching of Dr. Graham Scroggie who was my mentor, it was part of my Christian heritage to be shown the duties, wonders, power, and mostly, the authority of preaching the Word. Of course, I’m convinced that the Holy spirit only answers to the Word. Therefore if I wanted the anointing of the Spirit upon my preaching, it must be the Word. So number one was my training.
Number two was my experience in church work because, like many young preachers when I first started, I tried all the novelties of preaching. Always trying to go ahead of God, found that ultimately it produced no lasting fruit. That only those whose faith was solidly inculcated with the Word of God stood and became true disciples.
The third reason is, that with the passing of years, I’ve come to the conclusion — we’ve got to treat the Bible as God’s self-revelation in Christ. God has chosen in His wisdom and sovereignty to take language, time, and space in order to reveal Himself. Therefore, the only way in which my preaching can become the voice of God is to speak as accurately as I possibly can the voice of God in the Word. I have a little definition here that I use at the institute:
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 message or given passage, with the specific object of invoking a Christ-transforming response.
Really it’s the outworking of that that we use right here in our institute.
I feel there are three essential questions. First, “What does the Scripture say?” Second, “What does the Scripture mean?” Then, third, “what does the Scripture have to say to my heart and to my people?”
Preaching: You grew up as a missionary kid in Africa, then had a spiritual crisis that drove you from being an engineer into the ministry. You started in evangelism. How has that shaped your practice of expository preaching?
Olford: I believe, in God’s sovereign grace and provision, He allowed me to travel that pathway. So far as being an engineer, I think that helped, because when you put bolts and screws together, you want to see something work. That’s helped to give me careful precision in something that’s workable and practical. Alongside of that, God has given me an evangelistic heart. Even though I enjoy the exposition of God’s Word — and that’s the heart of everything — it’s always with an evangelistic heart.
The crusades I’ve conducted all across the world have given me an insight into cultures, into response level, and particularly into what I call the goal of all preaching — that is to bring people to commitment and into discipleship. In my crusades, I always get counselors to have people fill out a card. One sentence was always on every kind of response card we used. “At what point did you commit your life to Christ?”
Now, if it was with a counselor, that disappointed me and made me search my heart. That’s taking it to my perfectionistic extreme, but when they said, “When you reached that point in your sermon . . .,” then I said, “Hallelujah!” because I knew I was preaching with what Dr. G. Campbell Morgan calls, truth, clarity and passion. The truth was there and the clarity was there and my passion was there for the person to make that decision.
Preaching: You went from there to the pastorate. Most preachers inherently sense the difference between evangelistic crusade preaching and pastoral preaching. In this country, you were preaching in New York City. How did preaching in the urban context of New York shape your preaching?
Olford: It made me challenge three aspects of preaching. Number one, let’s start with truth. New York was a melting pot of philosophical ideas — cultural milieu and ethos and so on. So whether people accepted the Bible or not, I did and I wanted them to know that — that what I was saying was not my opinion but what this book said. One day, you’ll discover that this is the voice of God.
Second was clarity. New York was the best training ground for me because I wasn’t in the Bible South. We had pagans. In addition, we had an enormous number of Roman Catholics — 85% at that time — and about 3.5 million Jews, so when you preached you had to be clear. When I went through my manuscript I learned by experience what clarity meant.
I had scouts who loved me and appreciated my ministry who would sit and listen to me principally to check off things I had said that might not be clear. Sometimes that’s very humbling to go through that but I did go through that. It made me repetitious deliberately. If I made a statement, I would repeat in one way or other it a number of times to make sure they got what I said.
The other things are, conviction and passion. That’s where I learned in a new way what happened to John on the banks of the Jordan. He was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb but he had to be anointed. To me the anointing of the Holy Spirit is an unknown doctrine and certainly an unknown experience. I know when I have the anointing on me. Not to have the anointing is the most helpless experience of loneliness and abject defeat in the pulpit but when the anointing is upon you there is an authority that comes through that nobody can resist.
Preaching: Preachers can learn from other preachers, In your estimation, who are the great expository preachers today?
Olford: Though he has not the style of preaching — he sounds more like a teacher — I would say one of my mentors is John Stott. To me, when he has tackled a passage, there is very little you have to say after it. Going back — this will make me sound very much British oriented — was Dr. G. Campbell Morgan who made a great impact on my life as a teacher.
As a pulpiteer, who drew the greates crowds in London before Martin Lloyd-Jones came to that pulpit was Dr. W. E. Sangster, the great Methodist preacher. He could preach on his head with his eyes closed. He was a pulpiteer. It poured out of him. I wouldn’t have called him wholly expository but he was a biblical preacher.
Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones was a mentor for me. A dear friend, he came and preached for me at Calvary Baptist Church. I would call him a prophetic biblical preacher rather than what I would call the classical understanding of expository preaching where you find a pericope or a paragraph, find out its dominating theme, integrating thoughts, and motivating thrusts.
Preaching: Let me pursue that. I hear a distinction between Biblical preaching and expository preaching. How do you make that distinction and why do you prefer the word expository?
Olford: Two reasons. Biblical preaching is authentic because it is the word of God. Expository preaching is authentic because it’s still the word of God but much more memorable.
Biblical preaching you can reason out. Biblical preaching is a chunk of proof reasoned out from a passage in the typical way that a Lloyd-Jones preached. He was, “What this passage is,” “What this passage isn’t,” “What do we gather from this passage?” I have found, that what people remember are not just what you preached on but the points you preached. For instance, I was in Trinidad a while ago and I was delivering a message. I happened to be the second speaker and the man ahead of me had taken up the time a little so we had a cut-off time. I said, “I’m sorry” I must wrap up now. A man from the back of this tent said, “No you’re not going to. There’s another point you left out.”
I said, “What is it?” and he named the point.
I said, “Okay will you let me preach on that point?” Of course, they agreed. There was a man who had heard the message years before and he didn’t have book or a note. He didn’t know what I was going to preach on but he remembered that point.
Preaching: A lot of advocates of a more narrative style say, “People will come to me and say, ‘I don’t remember what you preached on, but I remember the story you told.'” How do you answer that?
Olford: The answer to that is simply this: I think our preaching world here is glutted with story telling. When I send an expository sermon to be published it’s sent back and they say, “Would you please illustrate it? We want a story for every point.”
Our Lord told parables, he used illustrations — and I’m an advocate of that — but I feel we’ve made the story more important than the Word and it’s the story the person remembers.
I’m not against narrative preaching, in terms of all of the narratives in the Old Testament and the New Testament. They should be treated as chapters of the story, but you’re still committed to expounding that as it was told either by a prophet or by our Lord or one of the apostles. I’m not against that. If people don’t remember the points per se, I’m not worried about that. Sometimes, I’m delighted, especially in a resident pastorate because they tend to look for the point statements.
I use alliteration. I hate forced alliteration — it turns my stomach — but if it is what I call natural, flowing, meaningful, memorable ways to remember points I do use that. Very often at Calvary Baptist Church I would deliberately break the sequence of the alliteration so that people wouldn’t be bound to it.
Preaching: That in itself would cause them to sit up and take notice.
Olford: Exactly. My structure really is self-serving. I like to have the rails clearly laid down so that once I get the steam up the old engine can go right across and carry the train.
I read a profound book by one of the presidents of Wheaton College many years ago — I don’t have it in my library. I can’t give you the title of it. I’ve been looking for it ever since. It shows that the Bible is a structured book from beginning to end. Take for instance the trilogy of the Apostle Paul — faith, hope, and love and how it functioned in epistle after epistle. Gene Getz of Dallas has shown that practically every time Paul uses that is to indicate at what level of growth the church has reached. For instance, see where it comes in Corinthians as an indictment on all of the problems that were in Corinth — particularly his exposition of love dealing with every sin that he has mentioned up until then.
It’s an amazing thing that even people who say we should just tell the story, give prose or poetry or tell a story in a narrative form. Yet you take that same person and say, “So that took place on Fifth Avenue this week?” “Yes.” “What happened?” They go right down the structure and contradict almost what is now the trend.
Frankly, I don’t want to be unkind here. You don’t have to be alliterative but people fight against the structured element because either they haven’t been taught in seminary or they have not come to the ingenious way of seeing how the pericopes are structured. Why are they in that form? Why is Matthew laid out as it is? Why is Mark a bit different? What of the great nuances of Luke? Then we come to John — 7 signs, 7 miracles, 7 interviews. Is that all accidental?
Over 50 years of preaching has made me feel that in the final analysis, people want to know, “1,2, 3, where are you going?” Your subject or theme gives unity, every single main heading or subheading should answer to that main theme. That’s unity.
But next is movement. You must have movement — You must move from a to b, c to d — and then obviously purpose. You must reach a climax of where you want to go and what you want people to do about what you’ve talked about.
Preaching: As the leader of an equipping center for persons “in ministry” you’re in a unique position, having pastors come from all over, to have your finger on the pulse of the churches. What are some trends you see?
Olford: I would say with guarded optimism that I sense a new hunger for true expository preaching. The young men who are coming to us represent a trend. When they come here, they don’t come for anything else. They’re not coming here for church growth, though we deal with that in the course of our program. They’re not coming primarily for evangelism, even though we have weeks for evangelistic preaching. Leadership we deal with as one of our other things, but we find numbers down. But when it’s preaching, that’s full house. Without exception, that’s the most popular program here. That’s a wonderful trend.
Secondly, I’d say that preachers are scared in the right sense about the unbelievable breakdown in morals in the preaching world. In fact, before I started this ministry I did a review with the great leaders of our country and asked the question, “Why are so many people leaving the ministry?”
The answers I’ve catalogued as follows: 1. vocational disillusionment — not realizing the true call of God on their lives and its binding commitment. 2. Amazingly enough, what came in second was moral breakdown. The divorce rate among our preachers is a tragedy. 3. Biblical illiteracy. They did their theology, they did their Greek, they’ve even excelled, some of them, at Aramaic and at Hebrew but they don’t know about the Word.
4. Right alongside of that, spiritual bankruptcy. It’s all in the flesh. It is not the product of what I call the crucified life and union with Christ and resurrection and the fullness of the Holy Spirit, and 5. physical and emotional burnout.
Preaching: Describe your process of preparing to preach.
Olford: It’s a little different in my present position where I haven’t a regular pastoral ministry. But some of the principles are totally relevant.
When I was at Calvary Baptist Church, the first thing I ever did was to bring my core people together and tell them what is involved in preparing an expository sermon to nourish God’s people. I said, “This is what it involves” and then I’d proceed to say what I’m going to say right now. I have found both at Duke Street and at Calvary Baptist Church in New York City that the protection I was given by my people, contrary to what many pastors feel, was unbelievable. They were absolutely my guard.
Monday was my day with my wife. We called Sunday, King’s day and Monday Queen’s day. From Tuesday on, I was in my study every morning.
We had television, we had radio we had conference ministry, we had a lot of other things but nothing broke into my morning and my first order of duty very early in the morning was to have my quiet time to get my soul saturated in the word and in prayer which is not study. It was meditation on God’s word. I have a little stool — an heirloom — which is my prayer stool. Then, I planned on Monday night the entire week, and when I lecture here, I talk about assignment, appointments, adjustments and assessments.
Appointments were what I jotted down on a paper, like a legal pad. But by Monday night, those assignments were scrutinized. Some had to be delegated — scrutinized honestly before God and translated into appointments. So I had appointments laid out. I learned this from John Stott who said at the time I talked to him about this that he had every 15 minutes of the day accounted for.
Those are followed by adjustments which are inevitable if there’s a life and death situation that breaks into that. How do you deal with adjustments and get back on-line. Then Saturday night, before I go to bed, assessments. What did I set out to do? What did I achieve? What did I screw up completely? Lord have mercy on me. I want to go into the pulpit with a clear conscience.
Right at the top of my assignments were, of course, the preaching events of the week. And I would plan these in such a way that the intensity of final preparation was brought forward. Sunday’s there, but Wednesday’s here and I happened to have a Bible study here or a radio or a television program and so I began to work out how to keep those balls in the air all at the same time with relative intensity but time to breathe as well.
I found that my most fruitful times of ministry were when I actually did solid exposition through a book at a time. One time 52 messages in Romans. I found that economy of effort and time because the spin-offs from consecutive teaching gave me all the material I needed for other things. The toughest preparation was when I started stone cold with a message for a seasonal event — Christmas, Father’s Day, what have you. Very often that would come out of a passage I had been dealing with. So I would come to it, after much prayer and try to do my basic work with my Hebrew and Greek, — not calling on commentaries at that point to try and get what I call, as Dr. Scroggie would say, “What is the dominating theme?” Now there are many themes but one has to be the one to preach on this week. Next year I may come back to it again.
Those three questions usually gave me the bare outlines. Then I’d begin to go into etymology, grammar, and so forth. I’d begin to pull down the commentaries and check my own thinking and to find out and to absorb some good stuff. Then begin to pull out my files on the illustrations. It’s been my practice — even though I might preach totally extemporaneously — to write out that sermon in full. One day it’ll be an article, a chapter in a book. But, the most important thing was that when I had finished writing that out, closer to preaching time, I’d go through it with prayerful review and there I would eliminate all the bad symmetries, bad language, bad theology, bad exegesis, too many repetitions of a given word, and all that sort of stuff.
Second, prayerful relationship of that message to my own heart — prayerfully reviewing. I believe in the glorious truth of John 1 that preaching is not redemptive unless it’s incarnational. It cannot be incarnational without the Holy Spirit overshadowing it all. That must relate to me. I am not going to preach to others what I haven’t preached to myself. So it has to come through incarnationally. Then lastly, prayer. The manuscript is pushed aside and I go through it and say, “Lord, here’s what I’ve got.”
I don’t memorize. I memorize conceptually but I do not memorize in words verse by verse. I ask “Lord, are you pleased with this?” Until I got through that with a sense of conviction and the favor of God in my own spirit, I’d go back over it until I’m totally released to preach that message.
Now in between all that, I had breaks for wider reading. At one time in New York, I read 6 books a week, and kept that up pretty accurately, along with magazines, journals, and that kind of thing. I’m talking about studying, now. I’m not talking about committees and I’m not talking about seeing staff — I’m talking about study itself.
I learned from John Stott — but I think the Holy Spirit deepened it in my life — the integrity of discipline. I did not waste time. I couldn’t be pictured as a pastor who spent two of his hours in his study putting balls on the carpet. I’d love to do that, but I was rigorous in my discipline. I think one of the greatest problems of preachers is to be disciplined in the study. The door is locked, your wife doesn’t know what you’re doing. Nobody knows what you’re doing but God and yourself. I trust that I was honest before the Lord on that.
Preaching: I’ll let you have the last word. Is there anything else you’d like to address?
Olford: I’d like to say from the depths of my heart that what the church needs in our country today is a return to anointed expository preaching. Dr. J. I. Packer has pointed out that not since the reformation has there been such a dearth of great preaching and the reason for that is that we have neglected the only basis for spiritual revival — Heaven-sent revival.
The Holy Spirit doesn’t answer to my word. He only answers to God’s Word. We must return to expository preaching with a view to bringing Christians back to normality, which is revival in the church. Then from that we can overflow to a needy dying world with a clear message of the saving life of Christ and the saving power of Christ.
My call to preachers, is “Back to the Bible. Back to the Bible. Back to exposition. Back to preaching the Word.”

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