Tag Archives: Preaching

“Why do so many people listen to John MacArthur?” by Hughes Oliphant Old

“What one hears from John MacArthur’s pulpit is a very straight Christian message—conservative, to be sure, but free from the wrangling, the defensiveness, and the bitterness of the fundamentalism of a generation or two ago. If one were to call MacArthur a fundamentalist, a label that, I gather, he would not reject, one would have to admit that his is a very impressive sort of fundamentalism. His expository sermons are instructive and edifying. Twice a Sunday he draws a very large congregation that sits attentively for an hour-long sermon.

To get a feel for the way MacArthur handles the ministry of the Word, I ordered his ten sermons on the eighth and ninth chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. I chose this collection because I myself had tried to do a number of sermons on these two chapters and found them extremely difficult to preach. In the two chapters nine of the most spectacular miracle stories of the Gospel are recounted about healings, exorcisms, and the stilling of the storm. The preacher has to deal with some tough questions in these two chapters. I was curious how someone with a reputation for solid expository preaching, such as MacArthur has, might interpret these passages. Listening to these sermons was a rewarding experience, even if I have a number of reservations and hesitations about MacArthur’s approach to preaching.

MacArthur fills these sermons with a wealth of factual material. In the way of human interest stories one finds, on the other hand, very little. The illustrative material focuses on the biblical story. It is the passage of Scripture that is illuminated rather than a principle drawn out of the passage.

MacArthur also has an amazing ability to explain Scripture by Scripture. He spends a great deal of time studying the parallel passages in the other Gospels. Most of the material in Matthew 8 and 9 is also found in Mark, Luke, or John. The harmonizing of the different Gospel accounts is not excessive. A good example of his moderation as a harmonizer is found in the sermon on the exorcising of the Gadarene demoniac (Matt. 8:28-34). One Gospel tells us of two demon-possessed men while the other tells us of a single man.

Particularly illuminating is the way MacArthur emphasizes the similarity between Matthew and John on the one hand and Matthew and Paul on the other. This is in contrast to much twentieth-century New Testament scholarship, which tended to see Matthew and the Synoptic Gospels over against John. Often to make his point he will run through a list of five to ten examples. He spits it out machine-gun style so he does not overburden the sermon with material that only the more initiated members of his congregation can follow, but for the more serious listener these parallel passages make the sermon richly informative and mightily convincing. Again MacArthur gives a great deal of time to coordinating the message of the Gospel of Matthew with that of the epistles of Paul.

Realizing that a significant school of modern biblical scholarship has denied that Paul’s elaborate theology was based on the simple gospel of Jesus, our preacher is careful to show the similarity between the two. It is very interesting to note that the polemic implied does not come to the surface. MacArthur simply shows how Paul preaches the same gospel as Matthew. One gets the impression that MacArthur is first of all an expositor and only after that a polemicist. This speaks enormously to his credit.

Having said this, however, one has to admit that our preacher has a very clear line of interpretation on these miracle stories in Matthew 8 and 9. As he sees it, these miracles are above all the proofs of Christ’s divinity. They are not examples of what the power of faith can do. Much less are they the myths that symbolically express the devotion of the early Christians to their extraordinary teacher. One never gets the impression that this preacher has the least shadow of doubt but that these miracles took place exactly as they are recorded. But, again, there is never any argument that they could have taken place just as they are recorded. Defending the accuracy of the Bible seems to interest MacArthur not at all. He simply assumes it is all quite reliable. This basic assumption that the text of Scripture is reliable is part of the foundation of his effectiveness as an interpreter.

Difficulties arise when one assumes that these stories could not possibly have happened the way they are supposed to have. If they did not happen then they can’t prove anything about Jesus. They may tell us what the early church believed about Jesus, but again if they didn’t happen, that suggests that the faith of the early church was mistaken. So much of the New Testament interpretation of the last century was devoted to salvaging some kind of Christian faith for an age that cannot accept the miraculous. For the last couple of generations the idea that one should make the major theme of these two chapters that the miracles proved the divinity of Jesus was about the last thought an enlightened preacher would try to make. That, however, is just the point MacArthur does make. He makes the point very successfully. He shows from the structure of the text itself that this is what Matthew is trying to say. He supports it with parallel texts from both the Synoptic Gospels and the Johannine literature. What is surprising is that there is no vitriolic attack on the ‘higher critics’ or the ‘modernists.’

The one direction in which MacArthur does let loose a moderate amount of polemic is toward the charismatics and faith healers. Charismatics take a very different tack in interpreting the healings and exorcisms of the Gospels. Charismatics see miracles as an ordinance of the church. Like the sacraments, they should be a continuing part of the Christian churches’ ministry. When MacArthur argues that the purpose of the miracles was to make it clear that Jesus was the Christ, he means we should not therefore expect this kind of healing ministry in the church today. It had its function in New Testament times but, since we have the inspired witness of Scripture today that is sufficient witness to establish both the true divinity and the true humanity of Christ, miracles are no longer necessary.

As I have mentioned, these sermons on Matthew 8 and 9 have a particular interest for me because I once tried to preach through these chapters and was very unhappy with how I did it. Where MacArthur succeeded and I did not may well be in his complete clarity on just how he stood on some of these issues. While I would insist that Jesus did perform miracles, I have to admit that the caveats of the Enlightenment still obscure my thoughts from time to time. I suppose I am troubled by a shadow of doubt, but then the same would be true of many in my congregation.

The place where I have always had the greatest trouble is the whole matter of exorcism. I really do not believe in Satan, demonic spirits, and demon possession. Maybe I ought to, but I don’t. I am willing to agree that I may have been too strongly influenced by the intellectual world in which I was brought up to fully grasp the full teaching of Scripture, but that is the way it is.

What is more than clear to me after listening to these sermons is that those who can take the text the way it is seem to make a lot more sense of it than those who are always trying to second-guess it. Surely one of the greatest strengths of MacArthur’s preaching ministry is his complete confidence in the text.

Let us look for a brief moment at our preacher as an orator. One could evaluate his oratory very differently. My first impression is that he has little to offer from the standpoint of the art of oratory. Listening to the tapes, one has to say that he is the antithesis of Lloyd Ogilvie. Thinking about it a bit longer, however, I have to admit he does have techniques of getting people to listen that we should not overlook.

The strength of his preaching is his content, but he has mastered some devices as well. He seems to have a feel for the use of rhythm in his preaching. He uses a variety of rhythms. He will often deliver a whole series of phrases in the same rhythm almost as used in the Odes of Horace. Sometimes his rhythms are very rapid and sometimes very slow. Sometimes they are highly artificial. One is easily offended by his preacher’s cant, but one wonders at times whether one does well to be offended. These pulpit rhythms, which we think of as being hopelessly old-fashioned, are being used by preachers today quite effectively. They somehow make it possible for the listener to absorb and retain quite a bit of material over a long period of time. Could this be why the epic poets told their long stories in rhythmic meters? MacArthur’s rhetoric is terribly out of date, but maybe he knows something the rest of us don’t.

Why do so many people listen to MacArthur, this product of all the wrong schools? How can he pack out a church on Sunday morning in an age in which church attendance has seriously lagged? Here is a preacher who has nothing in the way of a winning personality, good looks, or charm. Here is a preacher who offers us nothing in the way of sophisticated homiletical packaging.

No one would suggest that he is a master of the art of oratory. What he seems to have is a witness to true authority. He recognizes in Scripture the Word of God, and when he preaches, it is Scripture that one hears. It is not that the words of John MacArthur are so interesting as it is that the Word of God is of surpassing interest. That is why one listens.”

–Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, Volume 7: Our Own Time (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 551-558.

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“If you want to understand theology, you had better begin here” by Charles Spurgeon

“All of us put together, and millions upon millions of our human race, could never equal in value the precious Lord Jesus. If you were to put in all the angels as well, and all the creatures that God has over made, they could not equal Him who is the brightness of His Father’s glory, and the express image of His person.

‘Yet He spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all.’ And this is the gospel which we have to preach to you every time we stand before you, namely, that Christ Jesus, the Lamb of God, was offered to God as a substitute for ungodly, unclean, unacceptable man.

That we might not die, Christ died.

That we might not be cursed, Jesus was cursed and fastened to the tree.

That we might be received, He was rejected.

That we might be approved, He was despised.

That we might live forever He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.

If any man wants to understand theology, he had better begin here. This is the first and main point.

I do not think I should dispute with any of my brethren in the ministry upon what else they hold if they all hold purely and straightforwardly the doctrine of substitution by Jesus Christ on the behalf of His own elect people.

Martin Luther stood out for justification by faith, and rightly so, for in his day that seemed to be the center, where all the battle raged. I think that just now substitution by Christ seems to be the place where the garments are rolled in blood, and where the fight is thickest.

That Jesus Christ was punished in the sinner’s stead, that the wrath which was due to His people was endured by Him, that He drank the cup of bitterness which they ought to have drained, is the grandest of all truths, and so sublime a truth that if all the Christians in the world were to be burned in one dreadful holocaust, the price would be but little to maintain this precious doctrine in its integrity upon the face of the earth.

Now most men know that they are to be saved by Christ, but I am afraid, but I am afraid that it is not always preached plainly, so that men know how it is that Christ saves them.

My dear hearer, I would not have you go away without knowing this. Christ Jesus came into the world to take the sins of His people upon Himself, and to be punished for them.

Well, if Christ was punished for them, they could not be punished afterwards. Christ’s being punished in their stead was the full discharge of their debt which they owed to divine justice, and they are sure to be saved.

Those for whom Christ died as a Substitute can no more be damned than Christ Himself can be. It is not possible that hell can enclose them, or elsewhere are the justice and the integrity of God?

Does He demand the man, and then take a Substitute, and then take the man again? Does He demand the payment of our debt, and receive that payment at the hand of Christ, and then arrest us a second time for the same debt?

Then, in the great court of King’s Bench in heaven, where is justice? The honour of God, the faithfulness of God, the integrity of God are certain warrants to every soul for whom Christ died, that if Christ died for him he shall not die, but shall be exempt from the curse of the law.

‘How then,’ says one, ‘may I know that Christ died for my soul?’

Sir, dost thou trust Him? Wilt thou trust Him now? If so, that is the mark of His redeemed.

This is the King’s mark upon His treasure. This is the mark of the great Sheep-Master upon every one of those whom He has bought with blood.

If thou wilt take Him to be the unbuttressed pillar of thy salvation, if thou wilt build upon Him as the sole foundation of thine everlasting hope, then art thou His, and as for thy sins, they are laid on Him.

As for thy righteousness, thou hast none of thine own, but Christ’s righteousness is thine. As in the case before us, the lamb was offered, the donkey was spared; the unclean animal lived; the clean creature died. There was a change of places.

So does Christ change places with the sinner. Christ puts Himself in the sinner’s place, and what do we read? ‘He was numbered with the transgressors,’ and, being numbered with the transgressors, what then?

Why, He was put to death as a transgressor. They crucified Him between two malefactors. He had to suffer the death of a felon, and though in him was no sin, yet ‘the Lord hath made to meet upon Him the iniquities of us all.’

He was before God the representative of all His people, and all the sins of his people covered Him until He had drunk the cup of wrath, and then He threw off the horrible incubus of His people’s sins, and cast the stupendous load of the guilt of all His elect down into the sepulchre, and there left it buried forever, while in His rising He gave to them the pledge and earnest of their acquittal, and of their everlasting life.

Ah! My hearers, I wish I had a thousand tongues with which to proclaim this one truth! As I have not, I ask the tongues of all those who know its preciousness to tell it forth.

Tell the sick, tell the dying, tell the young, tell the old, tell sinners of every degree and every class, that salvation is not by what they do, nor by what they feel, but that it all lies in that Man who was once crucified, but who now lives in the power of an endless life before the eternal throne.

And if they say, ‘What mean you by this?’ tell them that this man is none other than God over all, blessed forever, and that He condescended to become man, and take upon Himself the sin of His people, and to be punished for their guilt, so that whosoever believeth on Him might not perish, but have everlasting life.

The just for the unjust, He died to bring us to God. This is the gospel– the core, the kernel, the marrow of the entire Bible.

You may say of all the book besides that it is but folds and wrappings; but this is what it wraps up—substitution by Christ.

Believe this truth. Believe it as a doctrine, but, better still, cast your souls on it, and say, ‘If it be so, then will I trust in the power of him who loved, and lived, and died for sinners that I might go free.'”

–Charles H. Spurgeon, “Redeeming the Unclean,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, Vol. 61 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1915), 61: 221–223.

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“No Christ in your sermon, sir?” by Charles Spurgeon

“The motto of all true servants of God must be, ‘We preach Christ, and him crucified.’ A sermon without Christ in it is like a loaf of bread without any flour in it.

No Christ in your sermon, sir? Then go home, and never preach again until you have something worth preaching.”

–Charles H. Spurgeon, “To You,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, Volume 50 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1904), 50: 431.

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“We hurl grenades into the enemy’s ranks” by Charles Spurgeon

“This is what you must do with your sermons: make them red-hot. Never mind if men do say you are too enthusiastic, or even too fanatical.

Give them red-hot shot. There is nothing else half as good for the purpose you have in view.

We do not go out snow-balling on Sundays, we go fire-balling. We ought to hurl grenades into the enemy’s ranks.

What earnestness our theme deserves! We have to tell of an earnest Saviour, an earnest heaven, and an earnest hell.

How earnest we ought to be when we remember that in our work we have to deal with souls that are immortal, with sin that is eternal in its effects, with pardon that is infinite, and with terrors and joys that are to last forever and ever!

A man who is not earnest when he has such a theme as this– can he possess a heart at all? Could one be discovered even with a microscope?

If he were dissected, probably all that could be found would be a pebble, a heart of stone, or some other substance equally incapable of emotion.

I trust that, when God gave us hearts of flesh for ourselves, He gave us hearts that could feel for other people also.”

–Charles H. Spurgeon, The Soul-Winner (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963), 76.

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“He bore my shame” by Charles Spurgeon

“God sees no sin in any one of His people, no iniquity in Jacob, when He looks upon them in Christ. In themselves He sees nothing but filth and abomination, in Christ nothing but purity and righteousness.

Is it not, and must it not ever be to the Christian, one of his most delightful privileges to know that altogether apart from anything that we have ever done, or can do, God looks upon His people as being righteous, nay, as being righteousness, and that despite all the sins they have ever committed, they are accepted in Him as if they had been Christ, while Christ was punished for them as if He had been sin.

Why, when I stand in my own place, I am lost and ruined; my place is the place where Judas stood, the place where the devil lies in everlasting shame.

But when I stand in Christ’s place– and I fail to stand where faith has put me till I stand there– when I stand in Christ’s place, the Father’s everlastingly beloved one, the Father’s accepted one, Him whom the Father delighteth to honour– when I stand there, I stand where faith hath a right to put me, and I am in the most joyous spot that a creature of God can occupy.

Oh, Christian, get thee up, get thee up into the high mountain, and stand where thy Saviour stands, for that is thy place. Lie not there on the dunghill of fallen humanity, that is not thy place now; Christ has once taken it on thy behalf. ‘He made Him to be sin for us.’

Thy place is yonder there, above the starry hosts, where He hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Him. Not there, at the day of judgment, where the wicked shriek for shelter, and beg for the hills to cover them, but there, where Jesus sits upon His throne—- there is thy place, my soul.

He will make thee to sit upon His throne, even as He has overcome, and has sat down with His Father upon His throne.

Oh! That I could mount to the heights of this argument tonight; it needs a seraphic preacher to picture the saint in Christ, robed in Christ’s righteousness, wearing Christ’s nature, bearing Christ’s palm of victory, sitting on Christ’s throne, wearing Christ’s crown.

And yet this is our privilege!

He wore my crown, the crown of thorns; I wear His crown, the crown of glory.

He wore my dress, nay, rather, he wore my nakedness when he died upon the cross; I wear His robes, the royal robes of the King of kings.

He bore my shame; I bear His honour.

He endured my sufferings to this end that my joy may be full, and that His joy may be fulfilled in me.

He laid in the grave that I might rise from the dead and that I may dwell in Him, and all this He comes again to give me, to make it sure to me and to all that love His appearing, to show that all His people shall enter into their inheritance.”

–Charles H. Spurgeon, “Christ—Our Substitute,” in The New Park Street Pulpit Sermons, Volume 6 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1860), 6: 195.

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“Our whole nature must be fired with an all-consuming passion for the glory of God and the good of men” by Charles Spurgeon

“We ought to be all alive, and always alive. A pillar of light and fire should be the preacher’s fit emblem.

Our ministry must be emphatic, or it will never effect these thoughtless times.

And to this end our hearts must be habitually fervent, and our whole nature must be fired with an all-consuming passion for the glory of God and the good of men.”

–Charles H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students: A Selection from Addresses Delivered to the Students of the Pastors’ College, Metropolitan Tabernacle (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1875/2008), 379.

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“We believe the old doctrines of grace” by Charles Spurgeon

“Little did I think I should live to see this kind of stuff taught in pulpits. I had no idea that there would come out a divinity which would bring down God’s moral government from the solemn aspect in which Scripture reveals it, to a namby-pamby sentimentalism, which adores a Deity destitute of every masculine virtue.

But we never know today what may occur tomorrow. We have lived to see a certain sort of men– thank God they are not Baptists– though I am sorry to say there are a great many Baptists who are beginning to follow in their trail– who seek to teach nowadays that God is a universal Father, and that our ideas of His dealing with the impenitent as a Judge, and not as a Father, are remnants of antiquated error.

Sin, according to these men, is a disorder rather than an offence, an error rather than a crime. Love is the only attribute they can discern, and the full-orbed Deity they have not known.

Some of these men push their way very far into the bogs and mire of falsehood, until they inform us that eternal punishment is ridiculed as a dream.

In fact, books now appear, which teach us that there is no such thing as the Vicarious Sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. They use the word Atonement, it is true, but in regard to its meaning, they have removed the ancient landmark.

They acknowledge that the Father has shown His great love to poor sinful man by sending His Son, but not that God was inflexibly just in the exhibition of His mercy, not that He punished Christ on the behalf of His people, nor that indeed God ever will punish anybody in His wrath, or that there is such a thing as justice apart from discipline.

Even sin and hell are but old words employed henceforth in a new and altered sense. Those are old-fashioned notions, and we poor souls who go on talking about election and imputed righteousness, are behind our time.

Ay, and the gentlemen who bring out books on this subject, applaud Mr. Maurice, and Professor Scott, and the like, but are too cowardly to follow them, and boldly propound these sentiments.

These are the new men whom God has sent down from heaven, to tell us that the apostle Paul was all wrong, that our faith is vain, that we have been quite mistaken, that there was no need for propitiating blood to wash away our sins; that the fact was, our sins needed discipline, but penal vengeance and righteous wrath are quite out of the question.

When I thus speak, I am free to confess that such ideas are not boldly taught by a certain individual whose volume excites these remarks, but as he puffs the books of gross perverters of the truth, I am compelled to believe that he endorses such theology.

Well, brethren, I am happy to say that sort of stuff has not gained entrance into this pulpit. I dare say the worms will eat the wood before there will be anything of that sort sounded in this place.

And may these bones be picked by vultures, and this flesh be rent in sunder by lions, and may every nerve in this body suffer pangs and tortures, ere these lips shall give utterance to any such doctrines or sentiments.

We are content to remain among the vulgar souls who believe the old doctrines of grace.

We are willing still to be behind in the great march of intellect, and stand by that unmoving cross, which, like the pole star, never advances, because it never stirs, but always abides in its place, the guide of the soul to heaven, the one foundation other than which no man can lay, and without building upon which, no man shall ever see the face of God and live.”

–Charles H. Spurgeon, “Christ—Our Substitute,” in The New Park Street Pulpit Sermons, Volume 6 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1860), 6: 190.

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