Spurgeon on Expositional Reading and Teaching in the Worship Service?

Spurgeon’s style of preaching may be explained as the product of his own conversion experience at age 15.

Here is a hint for the reader as to his reading. Let it always be distinct. Aim to be good readers, and be the more anxious about it because few men are so, and all preachers ought to be so. It is as good as a sermon to hear our best men read the Scriptures; they bring out the meaning by their correct emphasis and tone. Never fall into the idea that the mere utterance of the words before you is all that is required of you in reading; good reading is: a high, but rare attainment.

 

I’ve often wondered if C.H. Spurgeon’s style of preaching (i.e. the practice of taking a single verse and then constantly repeating it throughout the sermon, while making doctrinal and applicatory expositions of it) was the product of his own conversion experience at age 15. In his Autobiography, Spurgeon explained the nature of that particular experience when he wrote:

“When I could go no further, I turned down a side street, and came to a little Primitive Methodist Chapel. In that chapel there may have been a dozen or fifteen people. I had heard of the Primitive Methodists, how they sang so loudly that they made people’s heads ache; but that did not matter to me. I wanted to know how I might be saved, and if they could tell me that, I did not care how much they made my head ache. The minister did not come that morning; he was snowed up, I suppose. At last, a very thin-looking man,* a shoemaker, or tailor, or something of that sort, went up into the pulpit to preach. Now, it is well that preachers should be instructed; but this man was really stupid. He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had little else to say. The text was,—”Look Unto Me, And Be Ye Saved, All The Ends Of The Earth.”

There was, I thought, a glimpse of hope for me in that text. The preacher began thus:—”My dear friends, this is a very simple text indeed. It says, ‘Look.’ Now lookin’ don’t take a deal of pains. It ain’t liftin’ your foot or your finger; it is just, ‘Look.’ Well, a man needn’t go to College to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man needn’t be worth a thousand a year to be able to look. Anyone can look; even a child can look. But then the text says, ‘Look untoMe.’ Ay!” said he, m broad Essex, “many on ye are lookin’ to yourselves, but it’s no use lookin’ there. You’ll never find any comfort in yourselves. Some look to God the Father. No, look to Him by-and-by. Jesus Christ says, ‘Look unto Me.’ Some on ye say, ‘We must wait for the Spirit’s workin’.’ You have no business with that just now. Look to Christ. The text says, ‘Look unto Me.’”

Then the good man followed up his text in this way :—” Look unto Me; I am sweatin’ great drops of blood. Look unto Me; I am hangin’ on the cross. Look unto Me; I am dead and buried. Look unto Me; I rise again. Look unto Me; I ascend to Heaven. Look unto Me; I am sittin’ at the Father’s right hand. O poor sinner, look unto Me! look unto Me!” When he had gone to about that length, and managed to spin out ten minutes or so, he was at the end of his tether. Then he looked at me under the gallery, and I daresay, with so few present, he knew me to be a stranger. Just fixing his eyes on me, as if he knew all my heart, he said, “Young man, you look very miserable.” Well, I did; but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made from the pulpit on my personal appearance before. However, it was a good blow, struck right home. He continued, “and you always will be miserable—miserable in life, and miserable in death,—if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved.” Then, lifting up his hands, he shouted, as only a Primitive Methodist could do, “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothin’ to do but to look and live.” I saw at once the way of salvation. I know not what else he said,—I did not take much notice of it,—I was so possessed with that one thought. Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me. I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, “Look!” what a charming word it seemed to me T Oh! I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away. There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that instant, and sung with the most enthusiastic of them, of the precious blood of Christ, and the simple faith which looks alone to Him. Oh, that somebody had told me this before, “Trust Christ, and you shall be saved.” Yet it was, no doubt, all wisely ordered, and now I can say,— “E’er since by faith I saw the stream Thy flowing wounds supply, Redeeming love has been my theme. And shall be till I die.” I do from my soul confess that I never was satisfied till I came to Christ; when I was yet a child, I had far more wretchedness than ever I have now; I will even add, more weariness, more care, more heart-ache, than I know at this day. I may be singular in this confession, but I make it, and know it to be the truth. Since that dear hour when my soul cast itself on Jesus, I have found solid joy and peace; but before that, all those supposed gaieties of early youth, all the imagined ease and joy of boyhood, were but vanity and vexation of spirit to me. That happy day, when I found the Saviour, and learned to cling to His dear feet, was a day never to be forgotten by me.”1

One does not have to read many of Spurgeon’s sermons to understand that the same approach was the modus operandi for own preaching. In fact, there were many times during my seminary education that I remember getting in arguments with students who were hyper-critical of Spurgeon’s preaching. I was so thankful for the example of one who was so spiritually-minded and Gospel-centered that I was ready to be more forgiving with regard to his lack of textual precision and for the absence of an expository approach to preaching in his ministry. On one occasion, a student was criticizing Spurgeon’s preaching openly in the class. Welling up with frustration I shot back, “When you can preach the Gospel like Spurgeon, you can criticize Spurgeon.” One of the professors at my seminary quickly agreed with me as over against the unjust criticisms being raised.

To be fair, Spurgeon is not what we would consider a model of expositional, textual or lectio continua preaching. He was often loose with the his use of the text. Though squarely within the bounds of the analogia fide, one can only wonder what a powerful treasury of expositions we would have had if he had been committed to a lectio continua approach to reading and preaching Scripture. A recent observation may prove that he actually was committed to it in a part of his services.

Terry Johnson pointed out to me a fascinating historical-theological nugget he uncovered regarding lectio continua reading of Scripture from one of the introductory sections of Charles Spurgeon’s Commenting and Commentaries. Spurgeon actually defended the practice of expositional reading and teaching through books of the Bible during the worship service. It seems–from what he said in his section “On Commenting” at the beginning of the book–that he personally practiced a lectio continua reading and exposition of books of the Bible in the service at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. He wrote:

“Having introduced you to the commentators, I must now press upon you one of the most practical uses of them, namely, your own public commenting upon the Scriptures read during divine, service. Preaching in the olden time consisted very much more of exposition than it does now. I suppose that the sermons of the primitive Christians were for the most part expositions of lengthy passages of the Old Testament; and when copies of the gospels, and the epistles of Paul had become accessible to the churches, the chief work of the preacher would be to press home the apostolical teachings by delivering an address, the back bone of which would be a complete passage of Scripture: there would probably be but faint traces of divisions, heads and points, such as we employ in modern discoursing, but the teacher would follow the run of the passage which was open before him, commenting as he read. I suppose this to have been the case, because some of the early Christian modes of worship were founded very much upon that of the synagogue. I say some of the modes, since I suppose that as the Lord Jesus left his disciples free from rubrics and liturgies, each church worshipped according to the working of the free Spirit among them; one with the open meeting of the Corinthians, and another with a presiding minister, and a third with a mixture of the two methods. In the synagogue, it was the rule of the Rabbis that never less than twenty two verses of the law should be read at one time, and the preaching consisted of notes upon a passage of that length. Such a rule would be a mere superstition if we were slavishly bound by it, but I could almost wish that the custom were reestablished, for the present plan of preaching from short texts, together with the great neglect of commenting publicly upon the word is very unsatisfactory. We cannot expect to deliver much of the teaching of Holy Scripture by picking out verse by verse, and holding these up at random. The process resembles that of showing a house by exhibiting separate bricks. It would be an astounding absurdity if our friends used our private letters in this fashion, and interpreted them by short sentences disconnected and taken away from the context. Such expositors would make us out to say in every letter all we ever thought of, and a great many things besides far enough from our minds; while the real intent of our epistles would probably escape attention. Nowadays since expository preaching is not so common as it ought to be, there is the more necessity for our commenting during the time of our reading the Scriptures. Since topical preaching, hortatory preaching, experimental preaching, and so on–all exceedingly useful in their way–have almost pushed proper expository preaching out of place, there is the more need that we should, when we read passages of Holy Writ, habitually give running comments upon them.

I support my opinion with this reason, that the public reading of the abstruser parts of Scripture is of exceedingly little use to the majority of the people listening. I can recollect hearing in my younger days long passages out of Daniel, which might have been exceedingly instructive to me if I had obtained the remotest conception of what they meant. Take again, parts of the prophecy of Ezekiel, and ask yourselves what profit can arise from their perusal by the illiterate, “unless some man shall guide them”? What more edification can come from a chapter in English which is not understood than from the same passage in Hebrew or Greek? The same argument which enforces translation demands exposition. If but a few explanatory words are thrown in by a judicious reader, it is wonderful how luminous obscure portions may be made. Two or three sentences will often reveal the drift of a whole chapter; the key of a great difficulty may be presented to the hearer in half a score words, and thus the public reading may be made abundantly profitable. I once saw a school of blind children among the charming ruins of York Abbey, and could not help pitying their incapacity to enjoy so much beauty: how willingly would I have opened their eyes! Are ignorant people wandering among the glories of Scripture much less to be pitied? Who will refuse them the light?

Abundant evidence has come before me that brief comments upon Scripture in our ordinary services are most acceptable and instructive to our people. I have often heard from working men, and their wives, and from merchants and their families, that my own expositions have been most helpful to them. They testify that when they read the Bible at home in the family, the exposition makes it doubly precious to them; and the chapter which they had unprofitably read in course at family prayers, when they pursue it the next time, recollecting what their minister has said upon it, becomes a real delight to them. The mass of our hearers, in London at least, do not, to any appreciable extent, read commentaries or any other books which throw a light upon the Scriptures. They have neither the money nor the time to do so, and if they are to be instructed in the Word of God in things which they cannot find out by mere experience, and are not likely to have explained to them by their associates, they must get that instruction from us, or nowhere else; nor do I see how we are to give them such spiritual assistance except through the regular practice of exposition.

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