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J. I. Packer – Expository Preaching: Charles Simeon and Ourselves

Posted On February 27, 2015

Charles Simeon (1759–1836) is one of the towering evangelical preachers in the history of Anglican preaching. He stands as an inspiration to many contemporary evangelical preachers first of all because of his exemplary life as a preacher and mentor of preachers. Initially despised by the Anglican elite, his influence eventually became nearly without precedent in the annals of English ecclesiastical history. But Simeon’s continuing influence rests even more on his homiletic theory, which is the subject of this essay.

Toward a Definition of Expository Preaching

If we wish to appropriate the wisdom of Charles Simeon as theorist on expository preaching, we must first make clear to ourselves what we mean when we speak of expository preaching. This is necessary because the word expository has often been used in a restricted sense to denote simply a sermon preached from a long text. Thus, Andrew Blackwood wrote: “An expository sermon here means one that grows out of a Bible passage longer than two or three verses . . . an expository sermon means a textual treatment of a fairly long passage.”2 He went on to suggest that young pastors should preach such sermons “perhaps once a month”3 and to give hints on the problems of technique they involve.

Without suggesting that Blackwood’s usage is inadmissible for any purpose, I must discuss it as too narrow for our present purpose—if only because it would exclude all but a handful of Charles Simeon’s sermons (his texts, you see, are far too short!). We shall find it better to define “expository” preaching in terms, not of the length of the text, but of the preacher’s approach to it, and to say something like this: expository preaching is the preaching of the man who knows Holy Scripture to be the living Word of the living God, and who desires only that it should be free to speak its own message to sinful men and women; who therefore preaches from a text, and in preaching labors, as the Puritans would say, to “open” it, or, in Simeon’s phrase, to “bring out of the text what is there”; whose whole aim in preaching is to show his hearers what the text is saying to them about God and about themselves, and to lead them into what Barth called “the strange new world within the Bible” in order that they may be met by him who is the Lord of that world.

The practice of expository preaching thus presupposes the biblical and evangelical account of the relation of the written words of Scripture to the speaking God with whom we have to do. Defining the concept in this way, we may say that every sermon that Simeon preached was an expository sermon; and, surely, we may add that every sermon that we ourselves preach should be an expository sermon. What other sort of sermons, we may ask, is there room for in Christ’s church?

Expository Preaching in Our Contemporary Milieu

Having understood what expository preaching is, we must secondly be clear to ourselves why we are so interested in expository preaching at the present time. Professor Blackwood had in view the American scene when he wrote almost sixty years ago: “Pastors everywhere are becoming concerned about expository preaching”;4 but it is no less true of ourselves today. And we do well to stop and ask ourselves, Why is this? What lies behind this concern? Why are we all thinking and writing and talking about expository preaching these days? I am sure that we are seeking something more than tips for handling long texts. It is at a deeper level that we want help.

What troubles us, I think, is a sense that the old evangelical tradition of powerful preaching — the tradition, in England, of Whitefield and Wesley and Berridge and Simeon and Haslam and Ryle — has petered out, and we do not know how to revive it. We feel that, for all our efforts, we as preachers are failing to speak adequately to men’s souls. In other words, what lies behind our modern interest in expository preaching is a deep dissatisfaction with our own ministry.

There is a delightful seventeenth-century tract by John Owen entitled The Character of an Old English Puritane (1646), in which we learn that such a man “esteemed that preaching best wherein was most of God, least of man.”5 Our own constant suspicion, I think, is that our own preaching contains too much of man and not enough of God. We have an uneasy feeling that the hungry sheep who look up are not really being fed. It is not that we are not trying to break the bread of life to them; it is just that, despite ourselves, our sermons turn out dull and flat and trite and tedious and, in the event, not very nourishing. We are tempted (naturally) to soothe ourselves with the thought that the day of preaching is past, or that zealous counseling or organizing or management or fundraising makes sufficient amends for ineffectiveness in the pulpit; but then we reread 1 Corinthians 2:4 (NKJV) — ”my speech and my preaching were . . . in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” — and we are made uneasy again, and the conclusion is forced upon us once more that something is missing in our ministry. This, surely, is the real reason why we evangelicals today are so fascinated by the subject of expository preaching: because we want to know how we can regain the lost authority and unction that made evangelical preaching mighty in days past to humble sinners and build up the church.

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