I have had the unique privilege of teaching biblical exposition over the past two decades. My teaching grows naturally out of my regular, weekly handling of the text of the Bible. The natural and right place to begin such instruction on preaching is with the subject of Logos, the Word of God. Though the how-to’s of expository preaching are important, I do not generally go into these with a great deal of detail at first. I much prefer to begin with the beliefs and understandings that are indispensable to the task, and in fact demand it — the prolegomenon to biblical exposition.
When this approach is adopted, the foundation point will always be a wholehearted belief in the authority of God’s Word. Full confidence in its inerrancy, sufficiency, and potency is indispensable to a commitment to biblical exposition. To my knowledge no one does regular expository preaching who does not hold to this high view of scripture — that it is God’s inerrant Word.
But this alone is not enough. Exposition will not happen if one does not also view the scriptures as adequate and sufficient for all of life, appropriating Moses’ view that the Bible is “not just idle words for you — they are your life” (Deut. 32:47). The preacher must accept the Lord’s injunction that God’s Word is his very food — “every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4).
But even this is not enough. No one will give his life to biblical exposition who does not believe in scripture’s potency — that it can cut through the hard, white bone and running marrow of any soul and work salvation and that “the Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any two edged sword ….” The unsheathed Word can do anything! But we must truly believe it — not believe that we believe it — but believe it!
Second, the expositor must understand and hold to the inseparability of the Spirit and the Word, that they are like breath and speech to each other. This means that you must hold the conviction that when the Word is authentically ministered, the Spirit ministers. The Word and Spirit do not have separate ministries but are one.
Third, the expositor understands and rests his ministry on the fact that apostolic preaching was expositional. Paul’s instructions to Timothy (“Devote yourself to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, and to teaching,” 1 Tim. 4:13) was lived out in the early church’s public readings from the Old Testament and the apostolic writings followed by exposition — paraklesis and didaskalia. “It was taken for granted at the beginning that Christian preaching was exposition, that is, that all Christian instruction and exhortation be drawn out of the passage that had been read.”1 Therefore, any kind of preaching in the church, other than exposition, is an aberration.
Fourth, the expositor understands and glories in the knowledge that the preaching that brought about the Reformation and the Protestant tradition was biblical exposition. Both Luther and Calvin bear monumental evidence of this. Calvin saw parallels between the sea of blood that launched the Old Covenant, when Aaron doused the Word of the Old Covenant with the blood of sacrifices, and Jesus proclaiming the New Covenant in His blood. Calvin said that one ought to regard the New Covenant scriptures as if written in Christ’s blood. Indeed, this is the way Calvin treated the scriptures of both Covenants, as witnessed by his incredible sequential exposition of one book after another.
So, in light of the four foundational reasons above, and in light of the grand pluses of exposition:
1) You will preach texts that you would never preach, and even avoid if possible.
2) You never have to fret about what to preach on Sunday.
3) Systematic biblical exposition aids your growth as a theologian.
4) Expository preaching keeps you subject to the text.
5) Expository preaching gives you the confidence to preach with “Thus saith the Lord” conviction.
6) Expository preaching gives you confidence that when the Word is opened, the Spirit speaks.
Because of all this I am compelled to believe that the week-after-week fare of the church must not be topical or doctrinal or even textual, but expositional. Further, the popular a-textual forms of “disexposition” are also clearly wrong.
For the purpose of this article I will assume that everything that could be discussed under logos is in order in the reader’s thought process; i.e., that scriptural prolegomena are part of the preacher’s heart and that he has prepared his exposition. He has prayerfully interpreted his text in its context, using the established canons of hermeneutics. He understands the text’s application in its historical setting and in the whole of scripture.
He has discerned wherein it is a revelation of Jesus Christ and has made the appropriate intercanonical connections. He has made the trip “from Jerusalem to Chicago” and understands its present relevance. He has articulated the theme of the text, its “melodic line.” He has outlined his exposition using the literary structure of the text as a guide to his sermon’s symmetry. He has enlisted stories and illustrations that really do illuminate the text. Finally, he has written or outlined his sermon using language (metaphors and concrete words) that actually does communicate in today’s culture.
What is left for the truly reforming minister now is the actual event of the preaching of the Word, which invites our consideration of the ethos and pathos that are essential to biblical exposition.
Ethos, as I am defining it, is simply what you are — your character, you as a person, and therefore you as a preacher handling God’s Word before the flock of Christ. Ethos has to do with the condition of your inner life and with the work of the Holy Spirit within you, especially as it relates to the text that you are preaching. Biblical exposition is enhanced when the preacher invites the Holy Spirit to apply the text to his own soul and ethical conduct so the preacher is sympathetic to and humbly pursues the application of the text to his own life.
Phillips Brooks, the famous Episcopal bishop of Boston and author of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” touched on this when he gave his famous definition of preaching in the 1877 Yale Lectures on Preaching: “Preaching is the bringing of truth through personality.”2 He then elaborated: “Truth through Personality is our description of real preaching. The truth must come really through the person, not merely over his lips, not merely into his understanding and out through his pen. It must come through his character, his affections, his whole intellectual and moral being. It must come genuinely through him.”3
In the early 1900s Methodist Bishop William Quail carried the idea further by asking and answering a rhetorical question: ‘”Preaching is the art of making a sermon and delivering it?’ he asked. ‘Why no, that is not preaching. Preaching is the art of making a preacher and delivering that!'”4
These were helpful, groundbreaking observations when qualified and not taken too far, at least not to the extent Bishop Quail did when he concluded: “Therefore the elemental business in preaching is not with the preaching, but with the preacher. It is no trouble to preach, but a vast trouble to construct a preacher. What then, in the light of this, is the task of a preacher? Mainly this, the amassing of a great soul so as to have something worthwhile to give — the sermon is the preacher up-to-date.”5
The bishop seems to have forgotten in his enthusiasm Paul’s declaration, “For we do not preach ourselves” (2 Cor. 4:5). Indeed, many modern preachers do preach themselves with their endless personal anecdotes and inner therapeutic explanations and confessions. Nevertheless Brooks is right. The truth of God’s Word “must come through [the preacher’s] character, his affections, his whole intellectual and moral being. It must come genuinely through him.”
And here is the great professional danger, because it is possible for us preachers to imagine that we have spiritually been to places we have never visited. Phillips Brooks observed that in the repeated loud proclamation of the grand truths of the faith we can become like railroad conductors who imagine by saying, “All aboard for Albany” or “All aboard for Chicago” that they have actually been there. We can beg men to repent and yet grow so familiar with the whole doctrine of repentance that we are dulled to the fact that we have never ourselves repented.6
C. S. Lewis saw the same thing: “Those, like myself, whose imagination far exceeds their obedience are subject to a just penalty; we easily imagine conditions far higher than we have actually reached. If we describe what we have imagined we may make others, and make ourselves believe that we have really been there — and so fool both them and ourselves.”7 Richard Baxter warned, “Lest they offer the bread of life to others which they themselves have not eaten.”8
In the light of these realities, Lewis once advised a friend who was considering theological studies to forgo them, observing: “Someone has said, ‘None are so unholy as those whose hands are cauterized with holy things;’ sacred things may become profane by becoming matters of the job …. I’ve always been glad myself that Theology is not the thing I earn my living by. On the whole, I’d advise you to get on with your tent-making.”9
So let us all be warned as we preachers live our days amidst the wonders of God’s Word and the immensities of its great truths that what we preach must come through our souls. As the godly John Owen said: “If the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us”10 — Balaam’s donkey notwithstanding! However, nothing is more powerful than God’s Word preached by one whose heart has been harrowed and sanctified by the Word he is preaching.
The Puritan William Ames has it exactly right: “Next to the evidence of truth, and the will of God drawn out of the scriptures, nothing makes a sermon more to pierce, than when it comes out of the inward affection of the heart without any affectation. To this purpose it is very profitable, if besides the daily practice of piety we use serious meditation and fervent prayer to work those things upon our own hearts, which we would persuade others of.”11
Every appropriation of the truth preached will strengthen the preacher for preaching. Every repentance occasioned in his soul by the Word preached will give conviction to his voice. Then it will be said of him: “His sermon was like thunder, because his life was like lightning.”12
Theologically, Jonathan Edwards in his Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections has given us the best explanation of what must take place within us. Edwards didn’t use the word “affections” as we do to describe a moderate feeling or emotion or a tender attachment. By affections Edwards meant one’s heart, one’s inclinations, and one’s will.13
Edwards said, “For who will deny that true religion consists in a great measure in vigorous and lively actings and the inclination and will of the soul, or the fervent exercises of the heart?”14 Edwards then goes on to demonstrate from a cascade of scriptures that real Christianity so impacts the affections that it shapes one’s fears, one’s hopes, one’s loves, one’s hatreds, one’s desires, one’s joys, one’s sorrows, one’s gratitude, one’s compassing or understanding, and one’s zeal.15
This is what I believe needs to routinely happen to the preacher as he prepares God’s Word, so that the message comes through his whole intellectual and moral being. When this happens, he is truly ready to preach.
I have said it many times: Sermon preparation is twenty hours of prayer. It is humble, holy, critical thinking. It is repeatedly asking the Holy Spirit for insight. It is the harrowing of your soul. It is ongoing repentance. It is utter dependence. It is a singing heart.
When we actually come to the preaching event, these moments must be an exercise in Spirit-directed pathos or God-centered passion, as I am using this word.
Bogus Passion
Here it must be said that there is a lot of bogus passion in today’s pulpits. I have known of a preacher who would run in place, swing his arms, and jump up and down in the vestry in order to affect a spiritual passion when he stepped into the pulpit. I heard of another who stood on his head before walking out to the chancel. Hollywood has a word for this: “method acting.” But a false passion may have much subtler roots, as D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones observed:
“A man prepares a message and, having prepared it, he may be pleased and satisfied with the arrangement and order of the thoughts and certain forms of expression. If he is of an energetic, fervent nature, he may well be excited and moved by that and especially when he preaches the sermon. But it may be entirely of the flesh and have nothing at all to do with spiritual matters. Every preacher knows exactly what this means …. You can be carried away by your own eloquence and by the very thing you yourself are doing and not by the truth at all.”16
So, sinners that we preachers are, we must be wary of ourselves and the source of our homiletic passion. No marginal annotations: “Weak point here. Raise voice, pound pulpit!”
Scriptural Passion
Despite abuses, the scriptures know of and enjoin a godly passion for preachers of the Word. Paul told the Thessalonians, “Our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction” (1 Thes. 1:5). Paul wasn’t referring to conviction among his hearers, but rather his own conviction (“full conviction,” RSV, NASB; “strong conviction,” NEB) — i.e., earnestness and passion. That is the way Paul preached. For Paul, preaching and weeping went hand in hand: “For three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears” (Acts 20:31). This was also Jesus’ way on occasion. Do you think that Jesus dispassionately intoned, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37)? Not a chance. It was a loud, passionate lament.
Scriptural preaching demands a passion that flows from the conviction that what you are preaching is true.
When George Whitefield was getting the people of Edinburgh out of their beds at five o’clock in the morning to hear his preaching, a man on his way to the Tabernacle met David Hume, the Scottish philosopher and skeptic. Surprised at seeing Hume on his way to hear Whitefield, the man said, “I thought you did not believe in the gospel?” Hume replied, “I don’t, but he does.”17 Precisely! Whitefield’s famous passion bore substantial and convincing testimony to the authentic burden of the Gospel he preached. And so it always will be. Where there is no passion, there is no preaching.
At the same time we must realize that the display of passion must be requisite with your personality. There are some people, like the nineteenth-century Scottish elder, who are (by nature) so subdued that if they raise their left eyebrow and one corner of their mouth twitches, they are rolling in the aisles. Passion can be demonstrated when the preacher raises his voice and flails his arms so that it appears he is about to fly away. But it can be equally present when a preacher talks quietly and slowly — “This is about your soul. It is a matter of life and death.”
It is a matter of historical fact that Jonathan Edwards, the author of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, read his sermons, holding his notes in front of his face so he could read them in a normal voice. According to John Piper, Serano Dwight asked a man who had heard Edwards preach if he was an eloquent preacher. The reply was:
“He had no studied varieties of the voice, and no strong emphasis. He scarcely gestured, or even moved; and he made no attempt by the elegance of his style, or the beauty of his pictures, to gratify the taste, and fascinate the imagination. But, if you mean by eloquence, the power of presenting an important truth before an audience, with overwhelming weight of argument, and with such intenseness of feeling, that the whole soul of the speaker is thrown into every part of the conception and delivery; so that the solemn attention of the whole audience is riveted, from the beginning to the close, and impressions are left that cannot be effaced; Mr. Edwards was the most eloquent man I ever heard speak.”18
Edwards was an immensely passionate man, and it oozed through his personality. Piper concludes, “By precept and example Edwards calls us to [quoting Edwards] ‘an exceeding affectionate way of preaching about the great things of religion’ and to flee from a ‘moderate, dull indifferent way of speaking.'”19
Thomas Chalmers, the celebrated Scottish preacher, was described by James Stewart as preaching “with a disconcertingly provincial accent, with an almost total lack of dramatic gesture, tied rigidly to his manuscript, with his finger following the written lines as he read.”20 His secret? His “blood earnestness.”21 A universe of homiletical wisdom is contained in that phrase. However we preach, we must have a “blood earnestness.”
Spurgeon asked, ‘”What in a Christian minister is the most essential quality for securing success in winning souls for Christ?’ I should reply, ‘Earnestness;’ and if I were asked a second or a third time, I would not vary the answer, for personal observation drives me to the conclusion that, as a rule, real success is proportionate to the preacher’s earnestness.”22
“Be earnest, earnest, earnest — Mad if thou wilt; Do what thou dost as if the stake were Heaven, And that thy last deed before the judgment Day” (Charles Kingsley).23
I have a framed picture of Charles Simeon that was printed in 1836, the year of his death. Simeon was the man who almost singlehandedly brought the evangelical resurgence to the Church of England. Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, he had secured the pulpit of Holy Trinity, Cambridge, where he preached for over fifty years. For the first ten years of his ministry, his unhappy parishioners chained their pews closed, so that all listeners had to sit in the aisles. But Simeon persevered. His twenty-one volumes of sermons, Horae Homilaticae (Hours of Homilies), set the standard for preaching in the following generations.
His Friday night tea was used to disciple a generation of preachers and missionaries, men like Henry Martyn. He not only prevailed but three times gave the university lectures. When you visit Cambridge, you can view his artifacts at his church: the black Wedgewood teapot from which he served students at his Friday night study group, his umbrella (the very first in Cambridge), and his 21 volumes of sermons.
Today if you visit the National Gallery in London, you can see a famous set of silhouettes depicting Simeon in various homiletical postures as he implored his people from the pulpit of Holy Trinity. A contemporary wrote:
“I have been at Trinity church thrice today. In the morning a very good sermon by Simeon, a decent one by Thomason, and in the evening to a crowded congregation, a superlative discourse by Simeon (on Acts 4:12), vital, evangelical, powerful, and impressive in his animated manner. John Stoughton has a similar recollection. He felt that Simeon’s sermon: far from having the slow penetrating force of the dew came down like ‘hailstones and coals of fire.’ I was struck with the preacher’s force, even vehemence. He spoke as one who had a burden from the Lord to deliver — and one who, like Paul, felt ‘Woe unto me if I preach not the gospel.'”24
Another curate, Charles Carus, wrote, “The intense fervour of his feelings he cared not to restrain; his whole soul was in his subject, and he spoke and acted exactly as he felt.”25
One of his obituaries carried this remembrance of calling his hearers to faith: “And after having urged all his hearers to accept the proffered mercy, he reminded them that there were those present to whom he had preached Christ for more than thirty years but they continued indifferent to the Saviour’s love; and pursuing this trail of expostulation for some time, he at length became quite overpowered by his feeling, and he sank down in the pulpit and burst into a flood of tears.”26
“I preached as never to preach again, As a dying man to dying men.’ Richard Baxter’s poem is not sentiment, but the heart of a preacher alive with God’s Word!
In logos, ethos, and pathos we have a simple outline of the anatomy of true biblical exposition. Here we have a simple way of restoring biblical exposition to its rightful place in the modern church. Here we can do the true work of biblical reformation in our preaching.
Logos means, simply, that what you believe about the Word is everything. As a preacher, if you believe that scripture is wholly inerrant, totally sufficient, and massively potent, you will give yourself to the hard work of biblical exposition.
Ethos means that belief and hard work are not enough. You must let the Word of God course through your soul, inviting the Holy Spirit to winnow your soul, making you sympathetic to the truth you are preaching, and as much as is possible conforming your life to the truth you preach, so that God’s Word “comes out of the inward affection of the heart without any affectation.”
Pathos, therefore, means that you must stand to preach drenched in an authentic passion that causes you to speak with the utmost blood earnestness. You are preaching the Word. The wind of the Holy Spirit is in your sails. God’s name is lifted high.
Glory alone to God!
From Reforming Pastoral Ministry by John H. Armstrong, copyright (C) 2001, pages 83-95. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois 60187. www.crossway.com
1John R. W. Stott, Guard the Truth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), p. 122, explains:
It was taken for granted from the beginning that Christian preaching would be expository preaching, that is, that all Christian instruction and exhortation would be drawn out of the passage which had been read.
We note, however, that the public reading of scripture came first, identifying the authority. What followed was exposition and application, whether in the form of doctrinal instruction or of moral appeal, or both. Timothy’s own authority was thus seen to be secondary, both to the scripture and to the apostle. All Christian teachers occupy the same subordinate position as Timothy did. They will be wise, therefore, especially if they are young, to demonstrate conscientious integrity in expounding it, so that their teaching is seen to be not theirs but the word of God.
2Phillips Brooks, Lectures on Preaching (Manchester, VT: James Robinson, 1899), p. 5.
3Ibid., p. 9.
4Paul Sangster, Doctor Sangster (London: Epworth Press, 1962), p. 271. 5 Ibid.
Preaching is the art of making a sermon and delivering it. Why no, that is not preaching. Preaching is the art of making a preacher and delivering that. Preaching is the outrush of soul in speech. Therefore the elemental business in preaching is not with the preaching, but with the preacher. It is no trouble to preach, but a vast trouble to construct a preacher. What then, in the light of this, is the task of a preacher? Mainly this, the amassing of a great soul so as to have something worthwhile to give — the sermon is the preacher up-to-date.
6Brooks, Lectures on Preaching, p. 25.
7C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1960), p. 326.
8This quotation is attributed to the great Baxter, though I have not been able to locate the source of the original words. The closest I have come upon is The Reformed Pastor (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994), pp. 54-55.
9Sheldon Vanauken, A Severe Mercy (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), pp. 104-105.
10William H. Goold, ed., The Works of John Owen, Vol. 16 (London: Banner of Truth, 1968), p. 76 reads:
But a man preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul. And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savoury unto them; yea, he knows not but the food he hath provided may be poison, unless he have really tasted of it himself. If the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us.
11Art Lindsley, “Profiles in Faith, William Ames: Practical Theologian,” Tabletalk, 1983, p. 14.
12Harvey K. McArthur, Understanding the Sermon on the Mount (New York: Harper, 1960), p. 161 who quotes Cornelius A. Lapide, Commentary on Matthew’s Gospel (on 7:28), who records this quotation that I have adapted: “A sermon of Basil’s was like thunder, because his life was like lightning.”
13Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994), p. 24, where he explains,
This faculty is called by various names; it is sometimes called the inclination: and, as it has respect to the actions that are determined and governed by it, is called the will: and the mind, with regard to the exercises of this faculty, is often called the heart. Cf. pp. 24-27.
14Ibid., p. 27.
15Ibid., p. 31; cf. pp. 31-35.
16D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Sermon on the Mount, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1960), p. 266.
17Clarence Edward Macartney, Preaching Without Notes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1976), p. 183.
18John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1990), pp. 49-50.
19Ibid., p. 104.
20Ibid., p. 50.
21Ibid., p. 51.
22C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1954), p. 305.
23Elisabeth Elliot, A Chance to Die, The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1987), p. 13.
24Hugh Evan Hopkins, Charles Simeon (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), p. 64.
25Ibid., p. 65.
26Ibid., p. 66.

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