Expository Preaching: Charles Simeon and Ourselves

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  • Expository Preaching: Charles Simeon and Ourselves

    by J. I Packer

    Charles Simeon (1759–1836) is one of the towering evangelical preachers in the history of Anglican preaching. He stands as an inspiration to many contemporary evangelical preachers first of all because of his exemplary life as a preacher and mentor of preachers. Initially despised by the Anglican elite, his influence eventually became nearly without precedent in the annals of English ecclesiastical history. But Simeon’s continuing influence rests even more on his homiletic theory, which is the subject of this essay.

    Toward a Definition of Expository Preaching

    If we wish to appropriate the wisdom of Charles Simeon as theorist on expository preaching, we must first make clear to ourselves what we mean when we speak of expository preaching. This is necessary because the word expository has often been used in a restricted sense to denote simply a sermon preached from a long text. Thus, Andrew Blackwood wrote: “An expository sermon here means one that grows out of a Bible passage longer than two or three verses . . . an expository sermon means a textual treatment of a fairly long passage.”2 He went on to suggest that young pastors should preach such sermons “perhaps once a month”3 and to give hints on the problems of technique they involve.

    Without suggesting that Blackwood’s usage is inadmissible for any purpose, I must discuss it as too narrow for our present purpose—if only because it would exclude all but a handful of Charles Simeon’s sermons (his texts, you see, are far too short!). We shall find it better to define “expository” preaching in terms, not of the length of the text, but of the preacher’s approach to it, and to say something like this: expository preaching is the preaching of the man who knows Holy Scripture to be the living Word of the living God, and who desires only that it should be free to speak its own message to sinful men and women; who therefore preaches from a text, and in preaching labors, as the Puritans would say, to “open” it, or, in Simeon’s phrase, to “bring out of the text what is there”; whose whole aim in preaching is to show his hearers what the text is saying to them about God and about themselves, and to lead them into what Barth called “the strange new world within the Bible” in order that they may be met by him who is the Lord of that world.

    The practice of expository preaching thus presupposes the biblical and evangelical account of the relation of the written words of Scripture to the speaking God with whom we have to do. Defining the concept in this way, we may say that every sermon that Simeon preached was an expository sermon; and, surely, we may add that every sermon that we ourselves preach should be an expository sermon. What other sort of sermons, we may ask, is there room for in Christ’s church?

    Expository Preaching in Our Contemporary Milieu

    Having understood what expository preaching is, we must secondly be clear to ourselves why we are so interested in expository preaching at the present time. Professor Blackwood had in view the American scene when he wrote almost sixty years ago: “Pastors everywhere are becoming concerned about expository preaching”;4 but it is no less true of ourselves today. And we do well to stop and ask ourselves, Why is this? What lies behind this concern? Why are we all thinking and writing and talking about expository preaching these days? I am sure that we are seeking something more than tips for handling long texts. It is at a deeper level that we want help.

    What troubles us, I think, is a sense that the old evangelical tradition of powerful preaching—the tradition, in England, of Whitefield and Wesley and Berridge and Simeon and Haslam and Ryle—has petered out, and we do not know how to revive it. We feel that, for all our efforts, we as preachers are failing to speak adequately to men’s souls. In other words, what lies behind our modern interest in expository preaching is a deep dissatisfaction with our own ministry.

    There is a delightful seventeenth-century tract by John Owen entitled The Character of an Old English Puritane (1646), in which we learn that such a man “esteemed that preaching best wherein was most of God, least of man.”5 Our own constant suspicion, I think, is that our own preaching contains too much of man and not enough of God. We have an uneasy feeling that the hungry sheep who look up are not really being fed. It is not that we are not trying to break the bread of life to them; it is just that, despite ourselves, our sermons turn out dull and flat and trite and tedious and, in the event, not very nourishing. We are tempted (naturally) to soothe ourselves with the thought that the day of preaching is past, or that zealous counseling or organizing or management or fundraising makes sufficient amends for ineffectiveness in the pulpit; but then we reread 1 Corinthians 2:4 (NKJV)—”my speech and my preaching were . . . in demonstration of the Spirit and of power”—and we are made uneasy again, and the conclusion is forced upon us once more that something is missing in our ministry. This, surely, is the real reason why we evangelicals today are so fascinated by the subject of expository preaching: because we want to know how we can regain the lost authority and unction that made evangelical preaching mighty in days past to humble sinners and build up the church.

    Charles Simeon: Exemplary Preacher and Homiletician

    When we ask, “What is expository preaching?” our question really means: “how can we learn to preach God’s Word in demonstration of the Spirit and of power?” What is the secret of the preaching that achieves what our sermons are failing to achieve? To help us address these questions we shall draw on the wisdom of the English clergyman Charles Simeon, fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, who was vicar (in America it would be rector) of Holy Trinity parish church in the city for fifty-four years, from 1782 to his death at seventy-seven in 1836, who by common consent excelled as a preacher, and who regarded the mentoring of students and young ministers as central to his life’s work.

    Simeon, an upper-class English gentleman, son to a wealthy attorney, was an arresting if slightly odd person; fulsomely articulate and courteously forceful, and almost obsessively meticulous over little things (a fusspot, one might say), a sharp dresser with a pointed chin and bodily and facial gestures that were expressive to the point of being grotesque, he was a man easy to make fun of, and many did. His quick temper, heavy humor, and patrician style did not help at this point, and as a lifelong bachelor he had no one to wean him away from his eccentricities.

    The significant fact about him, however, is that he was determined and thoroughgoing, clear-headed, warm-hearted and passionate (he sometimes wept in the pulpit, as did George Whitefield before him), a man marked by deep sincerity, sympathy, charity, and humility, and a total commitment to biblical preaching and instruction in order to make Christ and his salvation fully known. For most of his ministry he was in the Holy Trinity pulpit twice each Sunday, and his congregation grew till it averaged 1,100 week by week.

    Theologically, Simeon made a point of distancing himself from the evangelical party debates of his day, deprecating systems and declaring that he was Calvinistic one day and Arminian another, just as his text led. In fact, however, he was not doctrinally indifferent or superficial, as those statements made him sound; he was consistently reformed Augustinian according to the Anglican Articles and Prayer Book, and his sermons were always directly biblical. Guided by John Brown’s Self-Interpreting Bible, a massive study aid from Scotland on which he constantly relied, he read the canonical Scriptures catechetically, as a sustained call from God to repentance and righteousness, faith, hope, and love, all focused on the divine grace and mercy shown in the cross, resurrection, and reign of the Lord Jesus Christ. In his 2,536 outlines, he was exploring these themes all the time, achieving endless freshness by letting each new text shape the material but never shifting from the goal of furthering adult evangelical piety by everything he said.

    Mentoring students into the maturity that would make them the next generation of evangelical leaders became more and more a focus of Simeon’s ministry as the years went by. In an age when, incredibly, the Church of England provided no preparation for any form of pastoral ministry, leaving it to young clergy to acquire skills on the job, Simeon would hold a class on preaching every second week for would-be ministers, usually with fifteen to twenty in attendance, plus a conversation party weekly that might attract eighty, where aspects of preaching were often discussed in response to students’ questions. Simeon’s passion to raise standards of preaching among Anglican clergy was brought into focus when he ran across Essay on the Composition of a Sermonby the seventeenth-century French Protestant preacher Jean Claude, translated by Robert Robinson, Whitefield convert, nonconformist minister, and author of the hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” who died in 1790.

    In 1796 Simeon republished the Essay, correcting and improving the translation, removing the rambling and anti-Anglican notes with which Robinson had adorned it, and appending one hundred “skeletons” of sermons on texts. Each “skeleton” consisted of introduction, topical headings marking thematic divisions of what the text contained, expository material for developing each thought, and application to the listeners of, or as he sometimes phrased it, addresses to them about what the text thus opened out had shown. From this grew his magnus opus, twenty-one volumes long, the full title of which in its final edition was as follows: Horae Homileticae or Discourses (Principally in the form of Skeletons) . . . forming a Commentary upon every Book of the Old and New Testament; to which is Annexed an Improved Edition of a Translation of Claude’s Essay on the Composition of a Sermon. This huge effort reached its completion in 1833, when Simeon was seventy-four.

    Knowing by now that he was something of a celebrity, one of the best-known clergy in the Church of England, and believing that this work could be epoch-making in raising pulpit standards, Simeon was bold to present a copy of it to King William IV, and one to each of the Archbishops, and one to all the leading libraries in Europe and America, and one to each Cambridge college library.

    To call it in effect a commentary on the whole Bible, as Simeon did in his title, was a revealing yet understandable overstatement. Though not a work of professional biblical learning, it offered a full-scale presentation of what Simeon took to be the consistent message of the Bible throughout, namely, a profile, hortatory and doxological, of the inward reality of evangelical religion as men like Richard Baxter, John Wesley, George Whitefield, John Newton, and William Wilberforce understood, expounded, and lived it. Simeon dreamed of clergy, young and old, using his outlines to help them create and preach sermons like his own, smoothly polite in style yet thunderously powerful and searching in substance, sermons that would be delivered with passion on the lips due to unction from the Holy Spirit in the heart. “If it leads the ignorant to preach the truth, and the indolent to exert themselves, and the weak to attain a facility for writing their own [sermons], and the busy and laborians to do more and unto better effect than they otherwise could have done, I shall be richly repaid for my labours,” he wrote to a friend. “My prayers for God’s blessings on it will, I hope, ascend as long as I am able to pray at all.”6 How far Simeon’s dream ever found fulfillment is not known, but the work itself is monumental, both as a vivid profiling of godliness and as a masterful demonstration of the abiding principles of pulpit rhetoric—communication, as we would say. It is natural to suppose that Simeon field-tested most, if not all, of the outlines by preaching them himself before putting them in print.

    The essence and genius of Simeon’s outlines is that they show the preacher (who, we assume, as he did, will have eyes to see) how he may sustain the sense that the text is doing the talking through what he says, and that what the text is doing throughout the sermon is exhibiting and elaborating and enforcing one key notion. Simeon would have agreed with the late Martyn Lloyd-Jones who observed and enforced the maxim “one sermon, one thought” and who ventured to draw out its corollary: more than one thought from the text in the preacher’s heart, more than one sermon on the text from him in the pulpit. The generalizing smoothness of Simeon’s language, culturally correct as it was in his day, seems old-fashioned to us, and with reason, but in technique with texts Simeon is far ahead of most of us today, and we would do well to try and catch up with him.

    Simeon’s Theory of the Sermon

    Suppose that we could put the clock back two centuries and set our problem before Charles Simeon at one of his sermon classes or conversation parties—what would he say to us? The records suggest a number of things of which he would wish to remind us.

    Being a supremely practical man, he would begin at the beginning and say: expository sermons are sermons and must therefore obey the ordinary formal rules of sermon construction. Otherwise, however good their matter, they will fail of their purpose.

    “Simeon,” wrote Canon Charles Smyth, “was almost the first man . . . to appreciate that it is perfectly possible to teach men how to preach, and to discover how to do so.”7 In his edition of Claude’s Essay on the Composition of a Sermon , and in his sessions with students, Simeon tirelessly hammered away at the basic lessons. A sermon is a single utterance; therefore it must have a single subject. Its divisions (which should be clearly marked, to help the listener follow and remember) should act like the joints of a telescope: “each successive division . . . should be as an additional lens to bring the subject to your text nearer, and make it more distinct.”8 In the interests of effective communication, all obscure and artificial forms of expression must be avoided. Of his own 2,536 skeletons, Simeon wrote: “The author has invariably proposed to himself three things as indispensably necessary in every discourse; UNITY in the design, PERSPICUITY in the arrangement, and SIMPLICITY in the diction.”9 Since a sermon is meant to instruct, it must not be above the congregation’s heads (“do not preach what you cannot tell, but what your people can receive”10 ). Nor must it be too long, or their concentration will go, and “where weariness or exhaustion comes upon people, there is very little chance of your doing them more good on that occasion.”11

    A sermon, Simeon would further remind us, is as long as it seems, and an unnatural and monotonous way of talking in the pulpit can make it seem very long very quickly. Simeon’s own commanding urgency and constant movement in the pulpit (he preached, he said, with his mouth, his eyes, and his hands) would keep people listening for up to an hour, but the sermons he created out of the material in the skeletons would, so he guessed, take not more than half an hour to deliver, and that in his view would be quite long enough for beginners and for many others too. Again, sermons are more than lectures and have a further aim than the mere imparting of information. “The understanding must be informed, but in a manner . . . which affects the heart; either to comfort the hearers, or to excite them to acts of piety, repentance, or holiness.”12 Claude elsewhere lays it down that a sermon has a threefold aim—“to instruct, to please and to affect”:13 the introduction being designed chiefly to please, to win the hearers’ interest and goodwill; the exposition to instruct, to win their minds and judgments; and the application to affect, to win their hearts and wills. Don’t cheapen your message, if you can help it, Simeon adds, either by cracking jokes in the pulpit (“a very painful style and manner”14 ), or by saying odd, fantastic things (“the pulpit is the seat of good, natural sense; and the good sense of good men”15 ).

    As to the mode of delivering your sermons, speak exactly as you would if you were conversing with an aged and pious superior. This will keep you from undue formality on the one hand, and from improper familiarity on the other.16

    And so on, down to best method of voice production.

    Neglect these rules, Simeon would say, and your sermons will deservedly fail, however good your heart and your material, for communication will not be achieved. Moreover, he would add, there is no excuse for such failure; for anyone can master the art of effective communication from the pulpit if he will only take the trouble. Daniel Wilson, in his memorial essay on Simeon, says the same: “Nor is there anyone destitute of the means of engaging the attention of others, if he will but take pains early, and be persevering in his use of the natural means of acquiring the faculty of teaching with effect. Every man can be plain, and intelligible, and interesting when his own heart is engaged on other subjects, and why not in religion?”17 Of course, it takes time—Wilson notes in the same paragraph that “few [of Simeon’s sermons] cost him less than twelve hours of study—many twice that time.” But who are we as ministers of the Word to grudge such as outlay?

    Preaching from Biblical Texts

    Such would be Simeon’s first point to us. Then he would go on to remind us that expository sermons should be textual in character. The preacher’s task, according to him, was not imposition, giving texts meaning they do not bear; nor was it juxtaposition, using texts merely as pegs on which to hang general reflections imported from elsewhere (“preachments of this kind are extremely disgustful”18 ); it was, precisely, exposition, bringing out of the texts what God had put in them. “I never preach,” said Simeon, “unless I feel satisfied that I have the mind of God as regards the sense of the passage.”19 The motive behind his almost obsessive outbursts against Calvinistic and Arminian “system-Christians,” as he called them, was his belief that, through reading Scripture in light of their systems, both sides would be kept from doing justice to all the texts that were there. Be “Bible-Christians” rather than slaves to a system, he argued, and so let the whole Bible have its way with you all the time. Whether or not we agree that such speaking is the wise way to make that point, we must at least endorse Simeon’s “invariable rule . . . to endeavour to give to every portion of the word of God its full and proper force.”20

    Sermon texts should be chosen with care, for the sermon should come out of the text whole and rounded, “like the kernel out of a hazel-nut; and not piecemeal . . . like the kernel out of a walnut.”21 Therefore, do not take a text that is too long to manage properly, and, on the other hand, “never choose such texts as have not a complete sense: for only impertinent and foolish people will attempt to preach from one or two words, which signify nothing.”22 The text chosen should so shape the sermon “that no other text in the Bible will suit the discourse,”23 and nothing foreign to the text must be allowed to intrude. For the prime secret of freedom and authority in preaching, as Simeon was well aware, is the knowledge that what you are saying is exactly what your text says , so that your words have a proper claim to be received as the Word of God. In a journal article in 1821, Simeon boiled down sermon preparation to the following: “Reduce your text to a simple proposition, and lay that down as the warp; and then make use of the text itself as the wood; illustrating the main idea by the various terms in which it is contained. Screw the word into the minds of your hearers. A screw is the strongest of all mechanical powers . . . when it has been turned a few times scarcely any power can pull it out.”24

    C. H. Spurgeon mistrusted continuous exposition of whole books of Scripture because it increased the risk of boring the congregation, and Simeon, like Spurgeon, like Claude, and like most revival preachers, past and present, looked instead for single verses carrying specific messages about God and ourselves that, as it were, said to the preacher as he read, thought, and prayed, “Preach me.” But all the texts of Simeon’s skeletons are put into context sufficiently to ensure that they do not become a pretext for the preacher to say things that they do not say themselves.

    Expository Preaching as Doctrinal

    The next thing I think Simeon would tell us is this: expository sermons must have a doctrinal substructure . Let me explain, lest this be misunderstood. I do not mean, any more than Simeon would have meant, that expository sermons should take the form of doctrine lectures, nor that they should be weighed down with theological technical terms not used in the text itself—the less of that, we may say, the better. The point is rather this: doctrines are to Scripture as the sciences are to nature. And as the scientist is to nature, so should the expositor be to Scripture.

    The scientist, just because he has studied the laws that natural phenomena illustrate and embody, is able to explain these phenomena individually to the non-scientist, who hitherto has observed them without understanding them. Similarly, the expositor who knows his doctrine (the truths and principles exhibited in the acts of God) is able to see and bring out the significance and implications of each particular text in a way that another man is not. And this is what he is called to do: to open up individual texts in the light of the analogy of faith, i.e., in terms of the broad framework of doctrinal truth that the Bible embodies.

    Simeon did not have to stress this in his own lifetime, for it was everywhere taken for granted. As we saw, the characteristic error of evangelicals then, both Calvinists and Arminians, was, to his mind, not neglect of the analogy of faith in their interpreting, but an over-rigid application of it. But he avowed the principle quite explicitly (in exposition, “I have in mind the analogy of faith,”25 he wrote), and I think he would emphasize it strongly could he speak to us now. For his own sermons are doctrinal through and through, abounding in clear and exact (though often unobtrusive) formulations of the great foundation truths of Scripture—God, creation, sin, the Trinitarian plan of salvation, the atonement, the work of grace, the means of grace, the church—and one suspects that by comparison he would find our would-be expository sermons distinctly foggy from a doctrinal standpoint.

    One suspects too that, whereas he told the evangelicals of his day that their handling of Scripture was cramped and lopsided because of their undue preoccupation with doctrinal issues, he would tell us that ours is cramped and lopsided because of our undue neglect of them; for, he would say, we have our few favorite subjects, which we can see in every text, but we leave great expanses of biblical teaching untouched, as if we were unaware of their existence. The truth seems to be that part, at any rate, of the recipe for maintaining breadth and variety in one’s regular exposition of particular texts is a thorough acquaintance with the doctrinal contents of the Bible as a whole, and no better proof of this could be given than the remarkable variety of theme and freshness and fullness of matter maintained throughout Simeon’s own 2,536 printed sermons.

    Evangelical and Theocentric Sermons

    Next, Simeon would remind us that expository sermons will have an evangelical content. Always in some way they will set forth the gospel in its double aspect as a revelation and a remedy; always in some way they will throw light on the twin themes of sin and grace; for these are things that the whole Bible is about. Always, therefore, their tendency will be threefold—“to humble the sinner; to exalt the Saviour; to promote holiness”26 —for that is the tendency of the Bible, and of every part of the Bible. Whatever part of the counsel of God they deal with, expository sermons will relate it to “Christ, and him crucified,” for the Christ of Calvary is, so to speak, the hub around which the whole biblical revelation revolves. It was in this sense that Simeon, following Paul, insisted that “Christ, and him crucified” was the whole of his message. And the preacher is not handling his texts biblically, Simeon would say, unless he is seeing and setting them in their proper relation to Christ. If the expositor finds himself out of sight of Calvary, that shows he has lost his way. Again, Simeon’s own sermons provide the best illustration of his principles here.27

    The fifth point he would wish to make to us would, I think, be that expository sermons must have a theocentric perspective. The key that unlocks the biblical outlook is the perception that the real subject of Holy Scripture is not man and his religion, but God and his glory; from which it follows that God is the real subject of every text, and must therefore be the real subject of every expository sermon, as he is of Simeon’s own sermons. This, again, is a point that Simeon could take for granted in his day, but on which he would need to expostulate with us; for we, to a greater extent, perhaps, than we realize, have inherited the later nineteenth-century outlook that sets man at the center of the stage, even in religion, and our thoughts and interests in the spiritual realm have become habitually and oppressively man-centered.

    What, really, do we preach about? Man—man and his religion, his needs, his problems, and his responsibilities—for all the world as if man was the most important being in the universe, and the Father and the Son existed simply for man’s sake.

    This is an age of great thoughts of man and small, sentimental thoughts of God, within evangelical Christendom hardly less than outside it. Simeon would tell us that we have things topsy-turvy; nor can we expect God to honor our preaching unless we honor him by giving him his rightful place in the center of our message, and by reducing man to what he really is—a helpless, worthless rebel creature, saved only by a miracle of omnipotent, holy love, and saved, not for his own sake, but for the praise of his Savior. He would tell us that we can only expect great blessing on our preaching when our sole concern is to do what he himself was solely concerned to do—to magnify the great God who works all things to his own glory, and to exalt his Son as a great Savior of great sinners.

    Power in Preaching

    But what about the thing that most concerns us—this question of power in preaching? What would Simeon say to help us here? He would tell us that ultimately this was a matter of God’s sovereign gift. “It is easy,” he once said, “for a minister to prate in a pulpit, and even to speak much good matter; but to preach is not easy—to carry his congregation on his shoulders as it were to heaven; to weep over them, pray for them, deliver the truth with a weeping, praying heart; and if a minister has grace to do so now and then, he ought to be very faithful.”28

    Meanwhile, he would say, we should seek to put ourselves in the way of such an enduement, first, by making it a matter of conscience to observe in all our sermon preparation the five principles set out above, and then by laboring constantly to be compassionate, sincere, and earnest in heart whenever we preach—men possessed by our message, saying what we say as if we meant it. How can we do this? By taking care deeply to digest the bread of life in our own hearts before we set it in the view of others.

    “[D]o not seek to preach what you do not feel [Simeon advises]; seek to feel deeply your own sins, and then you will preach earnestly . . . preach . . . as fellow sinners.”29

    Simeon himself is our example here. The feature of his preaching that most constantly impressed his hearers was the fact that he was, as they said, “in earnest,” and that reflected his own overwhelming sense of sin and of the wonder of the grace that had saved him; and that in turn bore witness to the closeness of his daily fellowship and walk with his God. As he gave time to sermon preparation, so he gave time to seeking God’s face.

    “The quality of his preaching” [writes a past Archbishop of Canter-bury] “was but a reflection of the quality of the man himself. And there can be little doubt that the man himself was largely made in the early morning hours which he devoted to private prayer and devotional study of the Scriptures. It was his custom to rise at 4 a.m., light his own fire, and then devote the first four hours of the day to communion with God. Such costly self-discipline made the preacher. That was primary. The making of the sermon was secondary and derivative.”30

    That was primary. If our question is: Where is the Lord God of Charles Simeon? we now have our answer. As so often with God’s answers, it takes the form of a counter-question: Where are the preachers who seek after the Lord God as Simeon did? This, surely, is the final word, if not from Simeon, at least from God through Simeon to us who would preach the gospel of Christ in the power of God’s Spirit today. God, help us to hear it, and to heed it.
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