Video: Panel Discussion with Al Mohler on Expository Preaching

Dr. Allen: Dr. Mohler, as we begin this conversation, I would love for you to take a minute or two to share your personal narrative as it relates to preaching. You spoke with great conviction today about expositional preaching, and, of course, we have talked about this countless times over the years. I think our group would find it encouraging and informative to hear your personal story how you came to appreciate and to be so convicted about what preaching is to be.

Dr. Mohler: I appreciate that question. It helps me to remember to say something I wish I had said this morning, especially as I was talking about revivalism. I actually came to know Christ by hearing a revivalist sermon. For that, I am unspeakably, eternally thankful.

My boyhood pastors were both topical preachers, trained by Southern Baptist seminaries to be topical preachers. They were trained in the mid-20th century homiletic that was ridiculed that it was “three points and a poem,” yet it was three points and something. Really, it was three points, a story, and a call to decision. That is what I heard, and I learned so much, but actually I learned more outside the sermon than I did inside.

That is one of the things that led me to wonder what preaching was supposed to be about. I did not think it was supposed to be about the same thing every Sunday and it did not appear to be that this is how the congregation is growing in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Then I heard other kinds of preaching.

When I was 14, I started having an apologetic crisis. I will not go into that long story, but that is what made me a theologian. My sources of rescue came from outside the SBC. There are two preachers that rescued me in terms of my understanding of preaching as a 14 or 15-year-old boy. One of them you are going to know immediately; the other one I think will surprise you. I do not know if I have ever told you this story, but my minister of youth started giving me tapes and that was interesting, but my minister of music at my home church started giving me tapes every week by John MacArthur.

Dr. Allen: That is an interesting sentence. Your minister of music was feeding you John MacArthur tapes.

Dr. Mohler: He was a source of great health to me. I was in the youth choir and he had a great interest in me. The other preacher he kept giving me was Ray Stedman at Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, California. He was doing verse-by-verse exposition. In retrospect, some of it was not very good, but he was doing it. By “not very good,” I mean, theologically, I would later think, “Oh that is not what that text is about.” But he was giving it a good swing.

John MacArthur, in many ways, defined biblical preaching for me. When I heard John MacArthur preach, I had to get my Bible out and open it. I had to follow it in the text. I discovered what he was doing is what the text was doing. I can still remember, the first Bible I bought was a green leather King James Bible. I still have it. It was cool in 1972.

Dr. Allen: The word is “groovy.”

Dr. Mohler: That’s right. So were Pontiacs. They were all cool in 1972.

Then, the second Bible I bought was a New American Standard hardback because John MacArthur was preaching out of the New American Standard and I wanted to be able to follow his preaching. Basically, when I got to seminary, I understood where my pastors had received that instruction in preaching because that is what I was given.

My homiletics professor at Southern was Luther Joe Thompson who had been pastor at the First Baptist Church of Richmond, Virginia. He was the same age as my pastor and had the same style. We were reading Ernest Freemont Tittle and all of the 20th century mainline individuals like David H. C. Read. I thought “I am not giving my life to that.”

That is where Spurgeon was an anomaly to me. I love what Spurgeon did with the text, the problem is, I wanted to know what Spurgeon was doing with the text that I was not finding. He was an expositional preacher, but he did not do what I would call expository preaching as a mode of going through books. So, I came to my own conclusion that I wanted to do more of what John was doing and that it was what I felt I wanted to dedicate my life to.

Dr. Allen: Define expository preaching.

Dr. Mohler: I wrote a book on it, which is helpful, because you have to define it. I want to go back to that two-sentence definition that is in the book. If you cannot define it, you cannot write a book about it.

I would argue that expository preaching is that mode of Christian preaching with takes, as its central purpose, to present the actual text of Scripture and to apply that text in context to the flow of biblical theology and the present needs of Christ’s people. Additionally, expository preaching is only accomplished if the text itself sets both the agenda for the message and the structure of the sermon. That second part is what is missing from a lot of other definitions.

Dr. Allen: I want to pick up on two words within that, and I would love for you to extrapolate this for a moment. “Setting within the biblical theology.” Talk about the balance of preaching the immediate text under consideration, linking it to the broader context, and then the full totality of Scripture itself.

Dr. Mohler: I preached, last week at the Expositor Summit at Southern Seminary, a message that is one of the pinnacle messages of my life and ministry—Genesis 22, the sacrifice of Isaac.

There are certain texts of Scripture that, even as I have taught them at some level, I have reserved for some great homiletically project into which I am going to pour a year of my life. So, I basically poured a year of my life into that message. I began it by saying, modern biblical critics want to dismiss this story as being immoral, or an example of divine child abuse. I said, “If it is a story and that is all it is, then they are right.” If this is a story, it is a horrible immoral story. If it is true, then we are saved.

I spent an hour laying that out, but one of the important things I had to say there is, “We are not saved by Genesis 22.” As a matter of fact, we do not know what to do with it. We only know what to do with it because of James and Hebrews. Actually, more subtly, the entire Gospel of Matthew is the only reason we know what to do with it, but it is Hebrews 11 that tells us what we do not know from Genesis 22 but can only hope for. That is the inner disposition of Abraham.

Is Abraham lying to Isaac when he says, “The Lord will provide for himself a lamb?” Is he lying to his two servants when he says, “The lad and I will go and worship, and we will return to you?” Is he lying? What is he doing when he stretches out his hand in the Hebrew to slaughter his son, and the angel of the Lord stops him? Hebrews tells us that he had confidence that God could be so faithful to his promise that he would make sure that the line of descent would continue through Isaac even if he had to raise him from the dead, which, as Hebrews says, figuratively he did.

If you are not doing biblical theology, you are lost in Genesis 22. You are going to turn it to a morality tale. Just try doing that, because there is a good reason that is not in Bible picture books for preschoolers. You are not going to be able to clean that one up. It only gets cleaned up by biblical theology because it is fulfilled in Christ. It is only cleaned up because now we are yearning, not only for a baby to be born of a miraculous birth as was Isaac, now we are waiting for your own son, whom you love, to carry his own wood for his own sacrifice as the Lord provides a lamb for himself.

If all we are left with is Genesis 22, then you can do a wonderful textual sermon and leave people absolutely lost. You have to use biblical theology. That is just one example, but I would say that is true of every single text. If you are preaching John 3:16, to take the opposite, how in the world can you now talk about John 3:16, which even in its word-structure clearly is hearkening back to Genesis 22, as it says, “For God so loved the world, he gave his only son.” Dot not get caught up in monomaniacs. Look at the structure of Genesis 22: “Your only son whom you love.” You have to do it both ways. There is promise and fulfillment, but you also have to put it in the flow of biblical history and the flow of the metanarrative.

By the way, if you do not do that, you leave people thinking that this text is the destination. The text never is the destination. How in the world do you not conclude the sermon with eschatological hope?

Dr. Allen: That is very helpful. You talked about us preaching in an age where there is auditory challenge. People are not accustomed to listening. Of course, my mind went to the great Neil Postman book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, where he talks about all of that. Help us understand how we preach, fully aware of the challenges we face seeking to preach a text, and bring content. How can we be creative and use imagination without compromising, fundamentally, what preaching is to be?

Dr. Mohler: I do not think it is compromising as long as it is all submitted to the exposition of the biblical text. This is a part of what it means to be an earthen vessel in incarnational ministry. Maybe the weirdest thing about preaching as God’s plan is that it depends on the likes of us. I have been around you long enough to know you are, frankly, weird. You are too weird to trust with this task, and I am almost assuredly weirder. Why would God choose the likes of us to do this? Why would he make you you? Why would he make me me? Why? Why do we all not look like Charles Spurgeon? By the way, let’s have dessert again. Why not?

Evidently, God intends to use these earthen vessels of so many different shapes, sizes, formations, and personalities to accomplish the purpose in order to make the point that it is not any personality that matters; it is the message that matters. It is the message that saves. We are the vessel through which this comes, but evidently God glorifies himself in a multiplicity of gifts invested in these different vessels.

The auditory age falling away is a very crucial thing. It can be measured. There are metrics about this. Because I live in the world of communications, I did a national radio program for a decade and I am still on the board of the network, so I am flooded with all of this because I still do so much work in the media.

The average sound bite in the 2004 presidential campaign was about 24–25 seconds long. The average sound bite now is under 20 seconds. That is how the attention span is moving. It is also “chicken and egg.” The media has to take some responsibility because they also train people how to listen. Nonetheless, that attention span has gone way down.

Neil Postman was writing in the sitcom age of high production television and he was writing about the fact that, back then, I think it was 8 ½ minute segments, then commercials, then another 8 ½ minute segment. They had to keep attention that long. He pointed out that when he was a college professor, he learned that he could give a lecture and the students were in for 8 ½ minutes and then would go out. They may come back in for 8 ½ minutes then they would go out again. That may be an exaggeration, but the point is profoundly made.

I will simply say this, national public radio’s fastest growing program is called “The Moth.” If you have not heard it, it is “The Moth Story Hour.” It is people just getting up and telling stories. People will listen if there is something compelling being said.

As a matter of fact, I think it is something of being in the imago dei. I think even when they do not intend to be inclined to hear words and think they matter, there is something about the imago dei that means they simply cannot pay heed. This does require skill. The Apostle Paul is very honest about that.

In his two letters to Timothy he is not reluctant to tell Timothy to develop skills. One of the most interesting things he tells Timothy is, “In the meantime, pay heed to the public reading of Scripture and to prayer.” The public reading of Scripture is getting up and reading it. Learn how to read; learn the cadence of the text; learn how to open your mouth and be understandable; learn how to trust the Word even when you are simply reading it.

The Lord uses different people and personalities. The people who say personality does not matter always have personalities that are huge. I will say this even of our dear friend, John MacArthur. Sometimes, if you just take John, you will this he says, “There should not be any human personality in preaching.” John is there. He is not there as an obstacle to the text, but you cannot remove the fact that you are hearing this voice and you are watching this man. I told him, “You do not use humor. You do not tell jokes, but you can lift your eyebrows and the entire congregation knows, and you hear them, they respond, so you are there.” That is God’s intention.

I think this generation of young preachers has very little experience. I was a paid speaker at age 16 for the American Legion. It was a patriotism. It was called an American Speaker for the American Legion. I had gone to an American Legion Boys Day and I gave the report. Then they hired me to go do it. I was paid $45 to go to several gatherings and speak, and I realized, “This is powerful, but this is not what I want to talk about.” The call to preach made it very clear. I realized there is something about having something you just cannot wait to say.

One of the reasons why a lot of these younger guys, especially, do not have confidence is because they never had an early experience. Pastors, get teenage boys in your church, and young men in your church, in front of people talking. That is a part of your necessary ministry. Get them up reading the Scripture as 15, 16, 17-years-old. Make them stand up in front of people and open their mouths. Create settings in which they have to teach.

When I was 16 my dad walked in my bedroom on a Saturday night. He was a layman—a grocer—and he was a Sunday school director. He came in my bedroom on Saturday night. I was happy. And he simply came in and said, “I am a Sunday school teacher short tomorrow.” And I thought, “That is a tragedy. This must be a burdensome responsibility.” It did not even strike me that he was telling me I was teaching until he threw the box from Nashville on my bed and said, “You are teaching first graders Sunday school tomorrow.” I said, “I cannot do this.” And he said, “It does not matter, you are going to.” I looked at what came in the Sunday school box and I said, “I can do better than that.” And I went in and taught first graders Sunday school and there have been only a hand full of Sundays since that day that I have not taught the Scriptures on the Lord’s Day. I can remember leaving that room with those first graders thinking, “I think I want to give my life to this.” And I still do.

Dr. Allen: Let’s say out in our room today we have some 25 or 26-year-old young men who heard what you said today, they were convicted by it, they appreciate what we are doing as a seminary here, buying into the ethos of expository preaching, they are going to graduate and go to a church that has maybe never heard anything like that before. Talk about balancing how you bring these convictions to bear, how you preach the text without getting into a five-year study on the book of Romans in a church that has never heard exposition. How can they acclimate a congregation to biblical exposition without fundamentally compromising what they are to do in the pulpit?

Dr. Mohler: I would simply say you have to train people how to listen to expositional preaching. That means that you need to preach expositionally, but you need to understand that you feed milk to people who are ready for milk until they are ready for meat.

There is nothing wrong with preaching, for instance, staring with the Gospel of Mark, John, or Luke. I would recommend starting in the Gospels and take ten chapters. Then you may need to skip to something else for a few weeks until people come to you and say, “When you are going to pick up on Luke again?” Then you say, “Okay, now they are getting it.” You do that until eventually you are able to do this.

Again, you look at these master expositional preachers, and they did not preach it the same way. Forgive me for raising John again, but you look at John MacArthur’s first time he preached through Romans versus the second time he preached through Romans and he went through the first time in something like a quarter of the time it took him to get through the second time. So you say, “John MacArthur changed.” Of course he did, but Grace Community Church had changed to a congregation ready for a very slow walk through Romans after a faster one.

Dr. Allen: That is very helpful. I want to turn our attention to the floor. We have a microphone. Raise your hand if you have a question for Dr. Mohler about preaching or broader issues are certainly fine to raise here as well. We want to serve you here in this setting and give you an opportunity. Who would like to go first?

Dr. Radu Gheorghita: I truly appreciate your lecture today. One of the most intriguing parts of it was where you presented to us something that we have all seen. A lot of Southern Baptist preachers are ready to die for the Word of God but not ready to exposit. How do you think we, as teachers or as a school, can redraw that balance not only to staunchly believe that it is the Word of God, but to know that once you believe that it is the Word of God, you have to do something about it?

Dr. Mohler: I think that is one of the great questions for all of us. I appreciate the honesty of your question. If we are honest, there are texts I would rather preach than other texts. This is not always for reasons I can understand in myself. Sometimes, I find myself less inclined to want to preach a text because I feel like I have preached it over and over again. It is not so much that there are texts that I think, “I do not want that because it is tough.”

It is some about how I make it sound different than when I went through Matthew saying virtually the same thing. We have to realize a couple things. Number one, the Holy Spirit intended for us to have three Synoptic Gospels, intended for us to preach every word of all three Synoptic Gospels, and where this passage is synoptically repeated, I am to go through it all over again as if I have never preached it before.

There are a lot of Southern Baptist preachers who will say, “I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture.” It is a very easy thing to affirm in the abstract. Yet, they do not preach the entirety of the text; there are texts they will just stay away from. If you ask me how to correct that, I will admit that I do not know how to fix that other than to say, we need to discuss it openly and say, if we are really doing exposition, then all of our theological convictions are going to be put through the meat grinder of the text. We are going to find ourselves having to reconcile our presuppositions with text. That is good and healthy and that is what we actually need to do. We need to be held accountable to say, “This is what I believe after I have preached this text.” That is the shape it takes.

I think one of the other things we need to do is help people—especially younger preachers—to understand that you cannot ever predict what the preaching of the text is going to do. I am just going to give you one example.

I preached some years ago on Zipporah circumcising Moses’ son and God seeking to kill Moses. I have had more people over the years from that church come up to me and say, “You know I still remember hearing that message.” I would not have preached it had I not been preaching verse-by-verse. There are multiple reasons in that text why you would just safely stay away.

Dr. Allen: I can’t imagine why they still remember it.

Dr. Mohler: What they mean is they remember how it got tied to the gospel. That’s fulfilled in Christ.

Dr. Allen: I remember when our friend, Hershel, preached that many years ago.

Dr. Mohler: Sometimes the Lord actually does with the text that you are most afraid of—if you deal with them courageously and honestly—the Lord does with them far beyond what you can imagine. I mentioned eschatology—I think often times when we are preaching one of those texts, we simply have to say, “I’ve done my best to present this text in all its candor and in all of its complexity. This yearns for the day that we no longer see through a glass darkly. Let’s continue to struggle with this until we see Christ face-to-face, and all this will be fully known.

Dr. Allen: That’s good. Very helpful. Thank you for the question. Someone else.

Dr. David McAlpin: Dr. Mohler, you mentioned a few moments ago in discussing the story of Abraham and Isaac the importance of including the metanarrative—setting that story in the context of the metanarrative. I’ve noticed what seems to be an emerging practice of doing that among the better, younger expositors today—something that my generation of expository preachers really didn’t do well or didn’t do much of. Where does that come from? That is a good influence, and what’s the value of that? Can you speak to the value of setting a passage in the grand sweep of the Bible story?

Dr. Mohler: That’s a great, very insightful question. I don’t think I have ever been asked it before, but I love it. I would say in response, I think it comes from three different avenues. No poem at the end.

The first is desperation. A generation that looked at the Scripture and said, “I don’t know what to do with all this, but I’m assigned all this. What do I do with all this?” When I was at Southern, Gabriel Joseph Evich of Yale gave lectures in which he said, “The Bible is an accidental collection of scrolls in a cave.” Well, if so then we are lost. The shape of the canon has to be itself a part of the perfection of Scripture. The shape of the cannon has to be telling us something. The flow of the narrative, desperate to know where we situate ourselves. I would say the exhaustion of modernity leads to an insatiable hunger for a story that is bigger than all the little narrative of modernity. We have to find ourselves in something really big and eternal.

I think the second thing is narrative theory. There are an often lot of people who today are very influenced—it is kind of like Existentialism and Pragmatism that I mentioned—there are a whole lot of people to day whose lives are very much shaped by the revival of narratology. In academic circles in the 1960s and 70s, Northrop Frye, Roland Frye, Hans Frye for that matter, different Fryes, Paul Ricoeur—an enormous number of people who helped to recover the narrative shape of human existence. By the way, even though they wanted to reduce it to that—which we have to reject—they do add to our understanding of the fact that God did create us as narrative people. We can’t tell who we are without recourse to a story. We are storied people.

Much of the Scripture, this is where Northrop Frye in particular is so helpful, is narrative. Then you have Hans Frye coming and telling about the eclipse of the biblical narrative. It was one of the major theological faults of the 20th century. The recovery of that, there are lots of people—you have biblical theology moments—Brevard Childs and others. A lot of this filters down to you, and by the books that are written by people who don’t know what they are writing about.

I can remember hearing, I won’t say his name but he gave the Mullins Lectures at Southern some years ago, a wonderful, great evangelical pastor and he is talking about the fact that all we need to do is get back to an understanding of the actual literary structure of the Scripture. We don’t need to be listening to all these modern theories about this. He was repristinating Hans Frye. He got it somewhere, I don’t know where he got it.

The third thing is very explicitly theological. I’m sorry this answer is so long. The great theological battle of the 20th century—I get in trouble on this, and so I will just go ahead and say it—the whole revival of reformed Calvinism is a part of this. That should be set in the context with people desperately seeking to understand how this all fits together. It is in one sense the necessary consequence of the Conservative Resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention. If these things are all true, they are eternally true, the Scripture is God’s inerrant written and infallible Word. All these doctrines revealed in Scripture aren to be asserted in all their truthfulness. The question is how do they relate to one another? How do we understand this?

That is why there is a huge generation that is found in more Reformed circles of thinking the way to do this. That has also provided the way to get access to the biblical metanarrative. Now I’m going to really get in trouble. Since I’m a hit-and-run speaker, I can do it. The decline of Dispensationalism, which basically in its classic form makes it very difficult to have a metanarrative. Not impossible, but classical Ironside type Dispensationalism makes it very difficult to have a metanarrative.

On the other hand, going all the way back to the 19th century Reformed theologians in the Netherlands and in the United States—Dutch speaking primarily—were developing against the challenges of modernity felt there much faster than here. The development of the embrace of a biblical metanarrative. So you have Geerhardus Vos and any number of others who are basically drawing from Calvin himself and Luther. There is also a Lutheran revival the same thing. If anyone believed in the biblical metanarrative it is Luther. Luther sought to put the biblical metanarrative in every one of his hymns. That’s the structure. It is creation, fall, redemption, new creation. It was accessible there. The Princetonians, at least some of them, clearly affirmed this.

Then you had the revival—Jason wrote some of his doctoral dissertation on this—the revival through VanGemeren and so many others. I think those three things.

I’m sorry it was way too much. I do think there was a hunger for it. Then there was a secular source where by lots of people are now asking questions that weren’t asking before. Then the discovery that there are faithful, orthodox biblical Christians who have been thinking this way for a long time.

Dr. Allen: Very good. Thank you, Dr. McAlpin. Someone else. We have time for one, maybe two more questions.

Dr. Rustin Umstattdt: It is piggy backing off of Dr. McAlpin’s question. You mentioned in your lecture one of the weaknesses or kind of knocks against expositional preaching is that people don’t know the Scripture. I’m sad to say that we have students in our classes that haven’t read the whole Bible.

Explain how the metanarrative connection could be a means with expositional preaching to call our people back in the pews to actually reading the whole Bible, and how that type of preaching could actually spur them at home to come back to reading the Scripture. I don’t know if we can reclaim the culture to read the Scripture, but can we reclaim our own people to do that?

Dr. Mohler: That was a very clever way of asking and answering your own question. That was very well done. Amen. I think the answer is right in the question as you ask it.

There is a seduction that is taking place here. We need to be very honest about it. Any teacher understands there is a seduction taking place in the classroom. You want students to fall in love with stuff they don’t even know that they want to know. Isn’t that the real thrill of teaching for those of you would are pastors or preachers? In the classroom, you kind of seduce a student into reading this book by making him, and then you have a subversive task. You don’t want him just to do it, you want him to eventually to say, “Ok, what else can I read that is like that?”

That is what to do in preaching. Sometimes preaching makes the point that this is important, not because the preacher says this is important but simply because of the context of the preaching. You’re stopping everything else in order to do this.

I think one of the happiest verses in the Scripture about the power of preaching is found in Luke 24, when the men who had been with Christ on the road to Emmaus reflected and said, “Did not our hearts burn within us as He taught us the word?” That is what you want. You want people who leave church and at 3:00 in the afternoon go, “Wow, something he said I can’t stop thinking about. I wonder where this goes next week? Did not our hearts burn within us?” That’s what we hope for. If so then it leads on into other things.

I also think structure is really important. The Victorians were great at this. We are incompetent at it. The Reformers where masters at it. We are incompetent at it. We don’t give structure to people. I would tell fathers, “Here is a schedule for reading Scripture with your family.” I would set it out, help give them a structure. Don’t leave them just with the aimless goal with trying to read the Scripture or read the Scripture through with their family. Give them a structure, give them a plan and give them some support.

One of the most important things that I saw recently, I was in a church in Birmingham—a large church. The pastor there shepherds a lot of fathers in the church, a lot of men in the church. They talk about what they are doing. They get together, they do the things that men do when they get together. Just in terms about talking about other stuff, they will say, “How is this working? How did your kids respond to that?” I think that is really, really important.

I think you give people structure, you hold it up as an expectation, you help them to understand what is going on. I really think that helping people in the church. Don Whitney has done a tremendous good work in terms of family worship. I told him God loves him, but I have a wonderful plan for his life. I told him that his next book needs to be a structure. He needs to put one out every year. He needs to put out every year a plan for the next year’s family worship. I’m going to encourage him to do that, because I can’t think of anything that would serve that cause better. You don’t want to give a guy who is responsible to pay the mortgage and get his kids to Little League and do all this, you don’t want to say, “Figure out homiletically and devotionally how to lead your family this year.” There are few guys in your church that can do that, but they will probably incline a lot more to faithfulness if you say, “Here is a plan.”

Dr. Allen: Tremendous. Very helpful. I think that is about a wrap for our time. Thank you for being here. This has been a fun afternoon and glorious chapel.

topicsAl Mohler  Preaching

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