A Conversation with Danny Akin about Preaching*

Dr. AllenDr. Akin, it is a joy to host you in the Spurgeon Room today. We are on the campus of Midwestern Seminary in the basement of the President’s home, the Vivion Home. We are in the Spurgeon Room, surrounded by Spurgeon’s books and some of Spurgeon’s artifacts. It is a joy to talk about preaching with you today. I want to preface the conversation with you today by simply expressing my appreciation to you for your influence in my preaching. I had you a little over 10 years ago in an M.Div. classroom, learning about preaching. Much of which you said that semester has certainly shaped my understanding of preaching and has stayed with me as I preach.

When I think about the man, Danny Akin, different thoughts come to mind—obviously, seminary president, a heart for the Great Commission, and a loyal and long-time Southern Baptist, but at the very top of that list is a preacher. It is first and foremost “preacher.” Let me begin asking you, autobiographically, to share about what channeled your heart as a young man toward preaching, and what developed this sense of passion in your heart for preaching?

Dr. Akin: I was fortunate, Jason, to have a pastor that was an expositor. I did not really know what it was, but I knew that he worked though books of the Bible and just taught the Bible. In God’s providence, I went to Criswell College and wound up meeting a man named Paige Patterson, who became my homiletics professor. And, of course, Dr. Patterson is well known for his commitment to expository preaching. He taught me many things. One of the things he taught me was that good preachers listen to good preachers, or even great preachers. He gave us a number of men that he thought provided good role models, in particular, John MacArthur, Chuck Swindoll, Stephen Olford, Adrian Rogers, and Jerry Vines. I began to listen on a regular basis to those men just to learn how they did it, why the way they did it was compelling, [and] also the way they handled the word. I was always fed by their preaching. So, I determined in my own life—taking what limited abilities that I had—to try to likewise follow in their footsteps. Having Paige as a preacher, finding those men as good models, and later being introduced to some of the writings of people like Haddon Robinson, Charles Koehler, and W. A. Criswell, that helped shaped my way of thinking about preaching.

Dr. AllenYou have very helpfully referenced listening to good preachers, and I do that Danny. I encourage my students to do that, and I do it today. I am a seminary president, but I always want to be learning. I always want to be a learner of preaching. If you come in my office in the morning while I am doing some desk work, there will often be sermons playing in the background. Many of the men you mentioned from yesteryear and from the current generation are who I am listening to. Whether it is John MacArthur or Adrian Rogers, who is deceased, or W. A. Criswell, Alistair Begg, Danny Akin, or other young men, you will hear preaching in the background.

Dr. Akin: I do not listen to him much. I cannot handle it.

Dr. AllenWell, you are like me. I cannot stand to listen to Jason Allen. This saying is not unique to me, but I tell folks—especially interns that I have here—“You want to listen to great preachers. Do not listen to one or you will preach just like him. Do not listen to two or you will be a deeply conflicted person.” Listen to seven, eight, or nine. Cycle through them so that you will develop your own voice, your own style, within the context of exposition, as you learn from these different great preachers.

Dr. Akin: I think you are exactly right. Today, when I am working through a book of the Bible, I try to find five or six men that have worked their way through that particular book. Recently, I want through the gospel of Mark, and I listened to John MacArthur. I listened to Mark Dever, who did a wonderful job of walking through the gospel of Mark. He is a charismatic Calvinist, but Sam Storms—who is not terribly far from here—also had worked his way through Mark, and he is a very good expositor so I listened to him. Those men, along with people like Andy Davis, David Platte, Matt Chandler, Matt Carter, Darrin Patrick, you mentioned Alistair Begg earlier, of course, John Piper—these are men that I try to see if they have worked through a book of the Bible. If they have, I try to listen to them just to learn both how they handle the text, but also their ability to communicate the text.

I say to folks now when I teach preaching, and I may have even said it when you were my student: “What you say is more important than how you say it, but how you say it has never been more important because today we compete with the internet; we compete with podcasts; we compete with radio; and we compete with television. People do not have to listen to bad preaching. It has never been a greater challenge, at least in the Western culture, to be able to say what you say well. I would rather you say something that is meaningful badly, than to say nothing in a very gifted sort of way.” I remember when I was at Southern, Herschel always used to say, “Why does it need to be one or the other? Why can’t we say something good and say it in a good way?” I think that is what we should aspire to do.

Dr. AllenThat is very good. When I was a young man contemplating a call to ministry, wrestling with that, and trying to sense the Lord’s will, I was in college playing basketball, and right across the street from my college was SouthPoint Baptist Church. I would go there on Wednesday nights and Sunday nights because I had practice at 8 a.m. I started going there because I could go from church to practice in two minutes.

I heard a guy preach there named Steve Lawson, whom you know. He is a great expositor. I remember him telling me one time, “Jason, if you like what I am doing, you will really like this.” I said, “What is that?” He told me about two men I had heard of very loosely. He said, “If you like what I am doing in the pulpit, you will really like what Adrian Rogers does, and you will like what John MacArthur does.” He said, “You need to get their sermon tapes.” So I did. I began to get Adrian Rogers’ sermon tapes and John MacArthur’s sermon tapes—I am dating myself using the word “tapes,” but I am going somewhere wit this.

Dr. Akin: Though they are both expositors, they are very different.

Dr. AllenExactly—they are very different. But those tapes are like gold to me. I had a couple of buddies, and we were pursuing ministry together. We would get these tapes, and we would share them. We might get crazy and duplicate them. MacArthur had this tape-lending library where you could mail in, get some tapes, have them, and then mail them back. This was like gold. We guarded those things with our lives, and we shared them. And now, with basically any topic under the sun or any text under the sun, you can go to an Adrian Rogers website, John MacArthur website, W. A. Criswell website, or dozens of websites where you can instantaneously download podcasts of these preachers on these texts. Rightly appropriated, that ought to take preaching to a whole new level—a whole new standard of excellence and competence for men in ministry and pursuing ministry these days.

Dr. Akin: I agree, because again, you need to ask yourself the question, “Why is it that thousands of people will, or did, come hear these people week after week after week?” Today, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands listen to them devotedly and faithfully week after week after week. So what is it that John MacArthur does that would cause you to come back again and again? What is it that Jerry Vines does, that John Piper does, that Mark Dever does—and we go on and on—that would cause people to want to listen to them week after week? Again, Jason, anybody can hit a grand slam one time. It is the very gifted man of God that can deliver the goods week after week, and these are men that you would want to listen to week after week. So, I would agree with you that we can learn from them, both in how they handle the text, and also in their delivery.

John MacArthur is not bells and whistles. He is just very faithfully teaching you the Bible for an hour. Adrian Rogers was probably the most gifted orator I have ever heard. You were partly enraptured by the way he did it. So, you could learn from him. You may not have his voice, but the way of turning a phrase—he was so good with little short quips, and there is a two-volume work called Adrianisms of all of these saying of his that were just part and parcel of who he was as a faithful expositor of God’s Word. It made his sermons all the more memorable and easy to recall.

Dr. AllenOh, I have five children, and I think I would be willing to give two of them to get his voice in exchange.

Dr. Akin: The first time I heard him I said, “Dear Lord, why did the rest of us get cut out of the will?” What an incredible voice he has. Then my wife one day said, “Yeah, he is also pretty to look at, honey.” I said, “Two strikes, we are done.”

Dr. AllenThat is right—and as someone famously noted—he could stand in the pulpit and say, “Mesopotamia,” and people would come forward. He was just brilliant.

Dr. Akin: That is exactly right.

Dr. AllenI want to touch on another name you mentioned. It is fun to have this conversation. I love your heart for preaching and getting to engage these things. You talked about Stephen Olford. I did not know who he was until, as a young man in college, I was told of him. I was given his biography, written by John Phillips, and what really struck me then was how the Lord had used him, but also, most immediately in that context, was the notion of biblical courtship. My wife and I applied that. As we were dating, we both read that biography, and we applied that to our lives. Then we had the opportunity to get to know Stephen and Heather Olford in a personal way as newlyweds. They hosted us a couple of different times in Memphis. We got to know them, and they sent us a wedding gift.

At that young age, when you are in your early 20s, pursuing ministry, you are very impressionable, and he made a very deep impression on me. Though, I do not think it is that I was an impressionable man at an impressionable age. It is something much more profound than that. As you look at preachers and listen to twentieth-century preaching, in any estimation, I think you have to put him on the top-ten list of preachers. When you look at what he did with the text, the voice that he could project, the power that he preached with, and—to use an old fashion expression that is relevant and right—the anointing of the Holy Spirit on his life, he was Lloyd-Jones’ theology on fire. To quote what he would say, “Great preaching would make doctrine dance.” He could do that in the way he handled the text. It grieves me as a seminary president to know that he has only been deceased about seven years, and so many people lose memory of people like that. I would love your thoughts—just a word or two of tribute—on Stephen Olford. Do you concur or not concur with my assessment?

Dr. Akin: Oh, I concur 110 percent. Let me work backwards. Ten years ago, the day before I was elected president of Southeastern Seminary, I was at the Olford Institute in Memphis doing a conference with him. I had to leave early on that Tuesday to be in Wake Forrest the next day. He brought me down in front of about 50 people for that particular worship. I got on my knees and he laid hands on me and prayed over me, asking God to bless the ministry at Southeastern. He died the next year. I will never forget that.

The first time I heard him preach I was 20 years old. I still remember. It was I Samuel, chapter 16: “The Sin of Partial Obedience.” Jason, it scared the daylights out of me because in that resonating voice of his, he said, “Partial obedience is complete disobedience.” It just sent chills up and down my spine. Furthermore, I was 20. I was young, like when you first encountered, him and I had never heard anyone preach like that, ever. It was in another category altogether. Immediately, I was attracted to him.

Then—a third thing—I lived in Dallas and went to Southwestern Seminary one way every day for three or four days a week. One particular semester, I sat in the back and took his series on II Corinthians. I listened to it throughout the semester driving back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. I want to tell you what, my soul was enriched more that semester by carpooling back and forth listening to him. Not trying to disparage what I got at the seminary, but just listening to him work through II Corinthians was powerful.

So, I agree. I would be willing to come together with some brothers to try to create a website, get his tapes, and have those digitized because as part of the generation that was blessed by him, the next generation is not experiencing that. They do not know who he is, and it is to their great, great, great loss. Just like Dr. Criswell’s legacy is being maintained and Dr. Roger’s legacy is being maintained, I would love to see Dr. Olford’s legacy maintained. I agree, he is at least in the top 10, maybe in the top five, preachers I have heard.

Dr. AllenThis is a man who personally knew Lloyd-Jones very well.

Dr. Akin: He was very close to Billy Graham.

Dr. AllenThat is right, and Billy Graham said in public that no one influenced him in his Christian life more than Stephen Olford.

Dr. Akin: He would sometimes call Stephen and say, “Would you fly up to the crusade? We will take care of it. I just need you to pray with me.” He was that kind of man. He was 5’5”.

Dr. AllenHe was a human dynamo.

Dr. Akin: He was, and Ms. Heather, as you mentioned a moment ago, his lovely wife—what a gracious lady. They were a great team.

Dr. AllenAbsolutely. He was like Whitefield in that wherever he showed up, it was like revival showed up with him. I have seen him preach to thousands, and I have seen him preach in a room of 20, and he does it with the exact same intensity, the exact same passion. You would think it was the most important event taking place in the cosmos that hour. He would show up with that passion and that power. He was just a true gem. You think about the great preachers in London, and you think about the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentiethcentury, and you have a link from Spurgeon, to G. Campbell Morgan, to Martyn Lloyd-Jones, to John Stott and others. Stephen Olford is directly in that lineage without question. Then he came to North America to pastor.

Dr. Akin: He was an “M.K.” wasn’t he?

Dr. AllenThat is right, he was a Missionary Kid. He grew up in Africa and has great stories associated with that. He pastored Duke Street Church in London and outside of London. Then, he came to pastor in New York City. He had a phenomenal ministry there with the launch of Encounter Ministries, and he was just a powerhouse preacher. I hope to resuscitate his reputation and the awareness of his ministry in every appropriate way I can.

Dr. Akin: He told me a funny story. Lloyd-Jones hated to be recorded, and even though there are a number of recordings of Lloyd-Jones, he did not like it. He felt like the preaching moment was something that could not be recaptured. Dr. Olford said he had him when he was in New York at Calvary. Olford said, “He would not let me tape his messages. He was adamant. I was not happy about it, but he would not let me.”

Dr. AllenHe told me a story one time, too. It was just an incredible story—you felt like you were there at Nicea or Chalcedon with these stories he told. It was like you were sitting in on church history. On one occasion, he was sailing across the Atlantic when Martyn Lloyd-Jones had just replaced G. Campbell Morgan. They overlapped a couple of years, with Lloyd-Jones as the teaching associate replacing Campbell Morgan in the early 1940s. He was crossing the Atlantic, Stephen and Heather were on the ship, and Dr. Lloyd-Jones was on the ship with Mrs. Lloyd-Jones. Dr. Olford saw Dr. Lloyd-Jones, on the deck and he went up to him and he said, “Dr. Lloyd-Jones, how are you doing?” He said, “Stephen, my boy, I am doing wonderfully.” He said to Lloyd-Jones, “How is it going at Westminster Chapel?” He said, “It is going marvelously. We are emptying the place.” Young Stephen Olford was perplexed and said, “Come again.” Dr. Lloyd-Jones said, “I said, ‘it is going marvelously, we are emptying the place.’” He said, “Stephen, my boy, before a man can fill a chapel, often he has to empty it first.” It proved true—he emptied it and filled it. You know the great stories there. People would throng to hear him preach. Even as bombs were falling in the Battle of Britain in 1939, they were hearing him preach, and the rest is history.

I want to shift gears here in the context of this conversation and unpack a little bit more about preaching. I want to touch on something that we are not going to give justice given time constraints. It is a big topic that is becoming bigger by the week, and it is an appropriate topic. Not to understate the consequence of it, but I think it is appropriate to call it not only a weighty matter, but a little bit of a fad these days as well, as far as contemporary relevance and interest. That is the whole notion of Christ-centered preaching. You are editor of a commentary series given to Christ-centered preaching. Say a word or two about the movement—if I may call it that—as you see it, and the tributaries leading to that, where it is, and how healthy it is.

Dr. Akin: I think it is a movement. It was something that was not on my radar screen, even as someone devoted to biblical exposition, until probably five or six years ago. I think the tributaries, to my Baptist shame, have to be acknowledged as being in the Presbyterian stream: Bryan Chappell, Sydney Greidanus, Graeme Goldsworthy, Sinclair Ferguson, Dennis Johnson, just to name a few. I sensed something, Jason, when I first got introduced to it. I immediately resonated with it.

Here is why: I had read John 5:39 where Jesus says, “The Scriptures testify of me.” He was clearly talking about the Old Testament. I have read Luke 24, as you have too, where Jesus says, “The law and the Prophets testify of me.” Someone said on one occasion, “If we treat the Old Testament like a Jewish rabbi, then we are not doing faithful Christian preaching.” That convicted me, and I knew intuitively that is true. If we treat the Old Testament like a Jewish rabbi, then we are not treating it as Christian Scripture. All of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is Christian Scripture. Now, does that then mean that we have to surrender to an allegorical hermeneutic? Absolutely not, but we can recognize there are a number of ways, especially through typology, that the Old Testament anticipates and looks forward to Christ.

Someone very influential in my life in this area was my son, Jonathan. Jonathan did his Ph.D. at Southern, took seven years of Greek and seven years of Hebrew. I do not know how, but he got really interested in the writings of Goldsworthy, Greidanus, Ferguson, Chappell, and so on. Ferguson actually says in one of his books that handling the Old Testament well as Christian Scripture becomes a knack—you learn by doing it. Well, Jonathan has that knack, and I would sometimes call him up and say, “I am looking at this text. Tell me how you would preach Christ from this.” He would take about 30 minutes, call me back, and I have to say to you—not because he is my son—he would do it and I would say, “That makes sense.”

Then, we had Sinclair Furguson and Ligon Duncan, whom I love dearly, come to Southeastern a number of years ago and preach out of Numbers 21. He preached it with a Christ-centered hermeneutic, and when he got through, I was looking at myself saying, “How else could you have preached this? Why did I not see this before?”

So, I will be the first to acknowledge that I am still on the way in doing this, and I do not want to jump from one extreme to another and thereby deny the initial historically, grammatically imbedded meaning of the text. I think that is where you start. You always start with, “What did the text mean at that time, at that moment, in that particular context.” But, to quote Paul Harvey, “We want to read that text in light of the rest of the story.” There is one grand author of the Bible—the Holy Spirit. He knew where the story was going. He knew how the little stories anticipate the big story that is coming on. That is what I am working through now. I am learning, and we are not there.

Again, Jonathan told me he had dinner with Graeme Goldsworthy while at Southern, and he asked Goldsworthy how he would preach a Christ-centered message from the book of Proverbs. Goldsworthy said, “I do not know. I have never done it.” He said, “Wait, you have this method.” Goldsworthy said, “Well, I have not seen how I could apply it to Proverbs yet,” which is a little deflating, because if it is a valid model, it will apply to everything. I think there is still a sense in which we are developing this, but I think we have to acknowledge that you honor the historical, grammatical meaning, but you do not preach the Old Testament like a Jewish rabbi because it is Christian Scripture.

Dr. AllenThat is very well put.

Dr. Akin: There is a balance, and we are not sure exactly where that is, but we are working on it and I think that is good.

Dr. AllenThe way I synthesize it in my mind in one sentence is this—I know I am very comfortable with this sentence—Christ should be, can be, and must be preached from every text from Genesis to Revelation. I am not ready to say that Christ is locatable in every text. Does that make sense?

Dr. Akin: Yes.

Dr. AllenI think there is some distinction there. By that, I mean some guys—not to get too analytical or too critical—take the ethos of Christ-centered preaching, they believe it, as do I—I wrote my dissertation on aspects of that—and they will run too quickly and feel like, “How do I do this?” It makes them perhaps a bit into—I do not say this pejoratively—the extremes of typology.

Dr. Akin: Yes, which almost becomes allegorical and spiritualizing.

Dr. AllenAbsolutely, and here is the thing—if you read Greidanus’ work, especially—many men have been helpful as you have referenced, but Greidanus’ book is uniquely helpful because he has his seven ways. Those are eminently helpful and applicable. I am wrestling with how to do this faithfully from Genesis to Revelation, bringing Christ to bear as a preacher of Christ. Our impulse, as it ought to be, is to begin and end sermons with Christ. We are in the Spurgeon Room, and we have the collective works of Spurgeon around us. I have challenged students and friends, and said, “You can pull any of these volumes off the shelf and turn to the last page of any sermon in these books, and you will find those sermons ending with Christ.”

Dr. Akin: He makes a beeline to the cross.

Dr. Allen: Of course, his famous statement is that he will make a beeline to the cross.

Dr. Akin: I think, Jason, he is somewhat of a model to show us how we can do it legitimately and authentically. He did. He gave us a good model. I think the other thing I would say is that we can learn through two avenues. One, read the sermons in Acts [and] read the book of Hebrews, because I think the book of Hebrews actually is a collection of sermon outlines. Look at how those work.

Then, look at how the early fathers—before they got seduced by allegory—look at how the earliest fathers handled the Old Testament. I think you have some guidelines there because they are the closest to it. We can at least glean from them and apply the things we have learned through the historical-grammatical Chrysostom Antioch School. Our feet stay grounded there, but we can see the advantages that Patristics, Hebrews, and Acts demonstrate for us, and honor what Christ said in John, chapter five and Luke, chapter 24: that in some way, the Scriptures are waiting, anticipating, and looking forward to him. The only time allegory is ever used in the New Testament is in Galatians 4:21–31, and Paul tells you, “I am doing an allegory.” Which, by the way, he says, “I am not in favor of this, and I do not usually do this.” So, if he tells you it that plainly, you probably ought to learn from the apostle there.

Dr. Allen: That is good. That is very helpful. Again, I encourage folks that the greatest champions of Christ-centered preaching—Bryan Chapell, Sydney Greidanus, all of these guys—understand and acknowledge this does not mean that you have to extrapolate Christ. You have these ways that are legitimate and right. I say, let’s do it aggressively, faithfully every week, but do not feel like that necessitates over-torqueing typology that may well become allegory.

Dr. Akin: I agree.

Dr. Allen: This has been a very helpful conversation. It has been fun to reminisce about preachers and talk about perhaps the most pressing issue on the preaching landscape today—Christ-centered preaching. You are a man eminently qualified to speak to this. You train preachers, are a preacher, love preaching, and you have taught preaching for over 20 years. Thank you for having this conversation.

*Recorded in the Spurgeon Room on 23 October, 2013

topicsSpurgeon Room Conversations

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