Attwood and Muller On the Need for Expository Preaching

Last year a friend of mine inquired about the style of teaching in churches with historical ties to the Plymouth Brethren. In his experience, acquaintances with those ties had unusually strong knowledge of the Bible. The answer is expository preaching. Mike Attwood recently spoke about the need for expository preaching and lamented its decline:

The assembly movement1 was the beginning of expository Bible preaching.2  Men like Spurgeon were textual preachers. They would pick a text and they would go around that text. They didn’t pick a passage or a book and go through it. That’s why the movement that we’re associated with had such a reputation of, “those people know their Bibles,” because they taught consecutively through the scriptures. That’s not happening anymore.

What do we mean by expository preaching? If you look at Nehemiah 8 verses 6-8, you’ve got a little bit of an explanation.

“And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place. So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.”3

And so the idea of expository preaching clearly is to help people understand what the passage of scripture is saying. The word exit is connected with that, you’re bringing out of the text that which is there and presenting it to the saints.

Again, we’ve got to be careful that our expository preaching is not only explaining the idea behind the text and the passage, and its context and all the rest of it, but then also, how it is relevant to you and I today. How is it going to help you and I, today, to fight the good fight of faith, to live godly in this ungodly world… What are we supposed to do with it? How are we supposed to apply it to our daily lives?

True expository preaching will, one person said, “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”I like that. We need that kind of expository preaching.4

Shortly after hearing this challenge, I read the following in George Muller’s autobiography. Written almost two hundred years ago, I found that Mike Attwood’s teaching echoed these important truths:

That which I have found most beneficial in my experience for the last twenty-six years in the public ministry of the Word is expounding the Scriptures, and especially the going now and then through a whole gospel or epistle. This may be done in a twofold way, either by entering minutely into the bearing of every point occurring in the portion, or by giving the general outlines, and thus leading the hearers to see the meaning and connection of the whole. The benefits which I have seen resulting from expounding the Scriptures, are these:

First, the hearers are thus, with God’s blessing, led to the Scriptures. They find, as it were, a practical use of them in the public meetings. This is no small matter; for everything which in our day will lead believers to value the Scriptures is of importance.

Secondly, the expounding of the Scriptures is in general more beneficial to the hearers than if, on a single verse, or half a verse, or two or three words of a verse, some remarks are made, so that the portion of Scripture is scarcely anything but a motto for the subject; for few have grace to meditate much over the word, and thus exposition may not merely be the means of opening to them the Scriptures, but may also create in them a desire to meditate for themselves.

Thirdly, the expounding of the Scriptures leaves to the hearers a connecting link, so that the reading over again the portion of the word which has been expounded brings to their remembrance what has been said, and thus, with God’s blessing, leaves a more lasting impression on their minds.

Fourthly, the expounding of large portions of the word as the whole of a gospel or an epistle, besides leading the hearer to see the connection of the whole, has also this particular benefit for the teacher, that it leads him, with God’s blessing, to the consideration of portions of the word which otherwise he might not have considered, and keeps him from speaking too much on favorite subjects, and leaning too much to particular parts of truth, which tendency must surely sooner or later injure both himself and his hearers.

One symptom of the decline in expository teaching can be seen in the modern tendency of churches to take a low view of scripture, allowing it to be modified and distorted by social issues. As Muller warned, the Bible has been reduced to a “motto for the subject.”

May the Lord Jesus Christ increase preaching that places the entire Word in holy prominence as He sanctifies his church.

  1. The Plymouth Brethren refer to their fellowships as assemblies (from the Greek word ekklesia), and members are simply called “brothers,” “saints,” or “believers.” They are usually aware of the term “Plymouth Brethren” but deny it applies to them since they don’t consider themselves a denomination. Formal “membership” in the sense demonstrated by the denominations is generally eschewed as unnecessary since personal salvation is understood to be the only requirement for membership in the body of Christ. []
  2. I would rather say “rebirth.” David Dunlap writes, “Expository preaching had fallen into disfavor at this time in the history of the church. Most ministers preached topically or textually; that is, using one text or verse and then building a sermon around the theme of the verse. The Plymouth Brethren did not follow this method, but introduced a verse-by-verse, chapter-by-chapter, consecutive exposition of the Scriptures. Moreover, they preached the Bible as one unified book… They took seriously the historical- grammatic method of interpretation of Scripture, and… were recognized authorities on the original languages of the Scriptures, trends within theology, and biblical history and culture… This unique approach virtually transformed the method in which the Bible was proclaimed and has influenced expository preaching well into our present day… The efforts of these Brethren expositors had a significant impact on L. S. Chafer, H. A. Ironside, and the founders at Dallas Theological Seminary and at Moody Bible Institute, influencing the expository preaching of a whole new generation.” []
  3. Nehemiah 8:6-8 []
  4. Mike Attwood, Midwest Regional Elder’s Conference, Session 3 – Obstacles to the Biblical Goal []

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