A Conversation with John MacArthur about Preaching

Audio: A Conversation with John MacArthur about Preaching


Dr. Allen:

Dr. MacArthur, it is a joy to host you here in the Spurgeon Room on the campus of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. We are in the Spurgeon Room, surrounded by Spurgeon’s library, desk, and books on preaching. So, it is so fitting and appropriate to talk to you, who in my estimation and in the estimation of many others have proven to be our generation’s Spurgeon—a man with a massive ministry that impacts so many people in so many different conduits, but at the very center of that, like Spurgeon, is the pulpit ministry.

I want to talk preaching with you today. Let me begin by asking you, as you think of yourself—your fundamental identity beyond husband and father—is it safe to assume that you think of yourself first and foremost as a preacher or pastor?

Dr. MacArthur:

Oh, absolutely. Even as I think of myself as a pastor, I think of myself as a preacher. All that I really have to offer as a pastor is my preaching. Anybody else can offer anything else. Anybody else can come alongside, sympathize, care for, come up with good ideas, and offer some leadership. Lay people can do that. In fact, hopefully we are training people to do that so that we can multiply ministry.

I am, above all things, a preacher. I could give up everything tomorrow. I could walk away from radio. I really do not care. If the Lord wants me to do that, that’s fine. I do not need to write another book. I do not need to be a president of an institution. I do not need any of that, but I cannot live if I do not preach.

It is not that I am driven by the crowd to do that. It is not external. I am driven internally to do that. This is a calling upon my life. It is almost an inexplicable drive within me. It is work to preach, as you well know. It is work to prepare, but I do it, and I do it with a certain joy. Sometimes I stand up, even now, after all these years, and I walk around because I am overwhelmed by what I have just discovered or seen. It is an internal drive that is the heart of a calling. It is not because I can do it. It is not because I can communicate, have skill at communication, or because people like to listen to me. It is internal.

Sometimes people say, “Well, you came to our church, and we just have a little church and it is so nice of you to come.” That is irrelevant to me. It is not about them. It is about me. It is about this passion internally to deliver the Word of God. That is what drives me. That is who I am. Every book I have ever written started as a sermon. Every commentary I have ever written started as a sermon. In fact, I have other jobs, and what I do is meet with people and preach at them.

Dr. Allen:

That is good, and of course, it is so Pauline: “If any man aspires to the office of the overseer.” It is the burden of the prophet, the fire in their bones, overflowing into the heart, and you cannot envision yourself doing anything else, nor can a generation of ministers, pastors, and church members who have been affected by your ministry.

When we think of preaching specifically—define, in your own words—expository preaching. What is it?

Dr. MacArthur:

Maybe we could just make a contrast. Sometimes you hear people say, “Expose the text.” That is not the verb. The verb is not “expose.” That is one thing. The verb is “exposit.” That is a specific verb, and what it means is to explain. An exposition is an explanation. That is as simple as I can make it. Explain the meaning of Scripture.

Now, having said that, the society in which you live—the culture and whatever is intuitive to you—has no bearing on that explanation. What is going on around you or what is going on inside of you has no bearing on that explanation. The only thing that has bearing on that explanation is the context in which that explanation was founded or grounded. So, we have to talk about authorial intent. What was the intent of the divine author and the human instrument when that was written down? It is so important for people to understand that true biblical exposition must take the listener back to the original context.

So, instead of saying we have to bring the Bible into modern times, that is exactly the opposite of what we need to do. We need to take the modern hearer into Bible times. I think the adventure for us at Grace Church is that we have lived in the Bible. Our people have dirt on their feet from walking the dusty roads with Jesus. They live in the New Testament world. They know the Pharisees. They feel the ethos of Jesus in a crowd in a village because they have lived that, because we have painted that picture for them. They know what Isaiah was going through. They understand what it meant for Jeremiah to be thrown into a pit.

The great excitement of biblical exposition is taking people on a historical journey. I know people today want to go forward into fantasy land, which is counterproductive. What we do is take them back into real biblical history and let the Bible come alive. That is the heart of biblical exposition. You cannot know what it meant unless you recreate the setting: geographically, socially, historically, linguistically, and all of those things.

I have to say that because there are people who read a verse and bounce off of it, and read another verse and bounce off of it, and read another verse and bounce off of it. That is not Bible exposition. You may take a simple truth from Scripture and expound on it or talk about it for a little bit, but exposition works in a unique way.

Let me explain it this way, if I have explained the Bible well enough, and accomplished the setup well enough, I can read the verse and they will understand the meaning. Just creating the context and reading the verse, boom, it comes to life. It is as simple as Jesus saying, “I am the light of the world.” You can take, “I am the light of the world” in John 8 and say, “Yeah, he is the light of the world. The world is dark, and needs his light,” but what was going on there? Well, he was in the part of the temple where the great candelabra had been extinguished because the feast was over. This was the first day that the light was out, and he stands up and says, “I am the light of the world, I never go out.” Wow! Now you have put him there. That is how you really explain the meaning of Scripture. That is what Bible exposition is.

Dr. Allen:

That is so well said. I read an article a number of years ago by a gentleman who was referencing and describing different influential speakers. When he came to John MacArthur, he said the “secret sauce”—that is my phrase, not his—of your preaching was that you preach with unsurpassed confidence. He meant that as more of a clinical assessment, and of course, I know what he missed, and want you to comment on. You are a confident preacher, but your confidence is not something that you conjure up within yourself. You are confident because you preach the Scripture. So, talk about what confidence is in preaching, and how that is derived.

Dr. MacArthur:

I do not have confidence as some mechanism. I have confidence out of a conviction. I know you say there might be some passages you are debating about what the actual interpretation is. You might go two or three ways. It could mean this; it could mean that. Once I make up my mind on what I think the best interpretation is—the best rendering of a given passage—I will preach that with confidence. I will preach that with conviction.

Sometimes that conviction may not be as strong. If I am preaching on the death of Christ as the sufficient sacrifice to God, I can preach that with every ounce of conviction. If I have a certain view of the baptism for the dead in I Corinthians 14, which could have 25 interpretations, the level of my conviction might vary.

When it comes to the decision I make, that this is what I think is the best interpretation, then I preach it and let it go. I can do that, and I think I can do it safely because whatever that conclusion is, even on a difficult passage, it is within the framework of acceptable biblical interpretation and theology. So I do not go out of bounds.

This is why—and you would know this, Dr. Allen, here at the seminary—seminaries have to teach systematic theology, because you can teach Bible exposition, and you must, but you need systematic theology because so much of preaching and so much of ministry is extemporaneous. If you do not know the boundaries of theology, then in those extemporaneous moments—in the freedoms of ministry—you go out of bounds. You are not going to do that if your theology is sound. 

Dr. Allen:

Right. It is the scaffolding that holds it together.

Dr. MacArthur:

Not only that, but it is the borders; it is the fences you do not go beyond. You are not going to have a student say something completely out of bounds because they are contained by that sound, historic theology that has been passed down and tested, tried, and proven.

Dr. Allen:

Take us into the study for a moment, preparing a sermon. Give us an overview of how you did it 40 years ago and how you do it today. I know there are great similarities. Just take us into the study. How do you get from the shop preparing it to the showroom presenting it?

Dr. MacArthur:

First is isolation. I have a place at home, a little desk against the window where I can look out and see the trees and the green grass. I have a chair that goes forward and back; it goes forward so I can read and it goes back so I can think. I get an 8 ½ x 14 legal pad, and I start by reading the passage.

Now remember, I am in a book, so I am in a context. I take that passage—let’s say it is six verses—and I write them down with some space in between on maybe six sheets, and I start thinking about the passage: its construction and its context. I go back to the original Greek and look at that. I go to lexicons and make sure I know what it says. That is the first thing: “What does it say?” Then, I start thinking about what it means, and I start writing that and meditating on that. Then I get cross references because I think the Bible explains itself best and is consistent. Analogia Scriptura was a Reformation conviction: the Bible is analogous to itself. I write all of that down.

Then, I start lining up commentaries. There is a great quote from Spurgeon in which he says he wants those people who think the Holy Spirit is speaking to them to remember that the Holy Spirit has illuminated many, many in the past. I know that I am dependent upon the illumination of faithful men of the past. That is why I read commentaries and I am looking for every possible insight and understanding, every possible expansion of the implication of a concept or a doctrine or whatever, and I just take all kinds of notes on that.

So, I am going back over those same sheets from commentaries. I pick up a theological theme, find books on theology, fill that up. I am never thinking outside of the Bible. I am never thinking about illustrations or anything like that at that point. I am just piling on the things that help me to fully understand the text. I do not think about a sermon. I am not trying to make a sermon. I am just trying to master the text and what it means.

When I am done with that, I know the point and I know the sub points. I put an outline on top of it, and then I write an introduction and conclusion. Now I have a rough draft. I meditate on that and think on that. I write some more notes, do some crafting of how that might work, and I write it by hand in a final form of, say, eight half-sheets. Now it is in me, and it is on the page. That is what I would take into the pulpit.

That is a process that can take me anywhere from, well, it used to take me 15–20 hours. It is probably more like 8–12 hours now, or 8–10, and it is still the same process. You say, “Well, you have been doing it so long, why does it still take you a long time?” If no other reason, because everything I have ever said they have recorded. So, whatever I need to say, I need to say in a different way. 

Dr. Allen:

Right. That is very helpful. Now, when you think about expository preaching and the length of a passage under consideration—and of course, in your ministry you are typically preaching through larger passages than in the later years—you have ebbed and flowed. You went through Mark more briskly than some of the other Gospels.

Talk about faithfulness to expository preaching through the text, and how you marry that to a specific passage of Scripture. So, you think about a Martyn Lloyd Jones, who was so given to exhausting a verse of its meaning, and you contrast that with a guy like Mark Dever, who is faithful to Scripture, but typically mows through it at a broader length. How do you balance that?

Dr. MacArthur:

This is my own conviction. It took me 43 years to preach through the New Testament. That was too fast. I left too much out. I am not going to pass that way again. I remember an early American preacher who preached for 42 years in his church and died in Isaiah 8. He started in Isaiah 1 and 42 years later died in Isaiah 8. So, that would be the extreme—Barnhouse extreme on Romans, or Lloyd Jones on something.

Now, I think you can go into all of the world and preach everything off of a text if you are not careful, but I think it is so profound and so rich that people need more than an overview. It is not the concepts that are inspired. It is the words that are inspired. You are making that decision every week. How far do I go? How much do I say? Maybe one of the hardest things about preaching is deciding what to leave out.

Here is how that works—after I have gotten all of that material together, then I decide what to make the sermon, and I leave things off those final notes. I get into the pulpit, and they have a way of coming back. I may determine to leave things out that end up being in, and sometimes they are better than what I had planned to be in.

I am going back through the Gospel of John right now, after preaching and writing a commentary, and I looked at my early notes and I cannot use them at all. I looked at my commentary and said, “Ah, I would like to write that again.” I am going through John with completely fresh insight, and it is richer than it has ever been. It is so exhaustive that I lobby for the in-depth approach, particularly if you are in a church. If you are an itinerant guy, and you are not going to have an opportunity to do that, fine, give people overviews. I remember going to Calvary Chapel one Sunday night, and Chuck Smith preached. He was going through Matthew, and he preached from Matthew 24–28. Not verses; chapters. I thought there might be a little in there that got missed. 

Dr. Allen:

Right, and if you are going to do an overview, that is not the easiest passage to overview.

Dr. MacArthur:

I have always felt like there is such profound richness. I go back to Job and the book of Proverbs, where it says, “Like mining, dig down in the earth, go deep, and uncover this truth.” So I may belabor the point a little bit, but I do think, having said that, it is important also to say that you cannot just wander through, mining out loosely connected stuff. I think every sermon has to be an entity in itself, a unit in itself. That is what the genius of Spurgeon was. There was a beginning, and an end, and a middle, and a main point. And it was memorable and captivating. I think you can do that with exposition. You want to avoid a commentary approach. You want to read commentaries, but you want to avoid just commenting on the Bible. You want to pull out of that passage one great, impactful, memorable, convicting, powerful message.

Dr. Allen:

And drive it home. That is good. That is so helpful. So, here we are, John MacArthur, the preacher at Grace Community Church, after all of these years preaching. Obviously, folks know of you and you will be remembered as a preacher. Is there any particular aspect of your preaching or observation about your preaching—if you could choose to be remembered by—that you would like to be remembered?
Dr. MacArthur:

That is a very good question. I do not want to evaluate my preaching, but in answering that question, this is what I hear, “You are very clear, and you are simple to understand.” Maybe one of the most interesting comments I have ever received was from some folks who work in missions. They said, “We find your preaching most accessible to people for whom English is their second language.” How interesting. It is easily translatable into any language. I think simple and clear is really, really important. At the end of the day, this is what we are all trying to do—get it down so that it comes across. That would be in terms of style.

In terms of content, what I hear is that the best of my preaching—the most telling of my preaching—is from the four Gospels. My focus on Christ is the richest work that I have done. That thrills me and that is because he is so compelling. If you give me an opportunity, I would rather preach Christ than anything. I would rather preach out of the Gospels than anywhere.

Dr. Allen:

That is so Spurgeon-esque, as we are here thinking of Spurgeon and celebrating his legacy.

Dr. MacArthur, this has been very insightful, and I trust very helpful. You have the three different components of a truly historic preacher: A) The ability to do it. You do it. B) The ability to teach it and transfer it, but then C) a lifetime, a faithfulness, that buttresses it. Thank you for all three of those things.

Dr. MacArthur:

That is the goodness of the Lord.

Dr. Allen:

Thank you. This has been an enjoyable conversation. Thank you for your ministry to us.

Dr. MacArthur:

Thank you.


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