Ten Questions for Expositors – RykenApril 11, 2007
Following on from last week’s interview with Tim Keller, today we turn to Philip Ryken. Dr Ryken is the senior minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. For a brief biography click here. Next week we look forward to hearing from Voddie Bauckham.
1. Can you provide us with a definition of biblical preaching?
Expository preaching means making God’s Word plain. In an expository sermon the preacher simply tries to explain what the Bible teaches. The main points of his sermon are the points made by a particular text in the Bible. The minister not only begins with Scripture, but also allows the Scripture to establish the context and content for his entire sermon. The way he decides what to say is by studying what the Bible has to say, so that the Scripture itself sets the agenda for his interpretation and application.
This kind of preaching is most helpfully done when a minister follows the logic of the Scriptures, systematically preaching chapter by chapter and verse by verse through entire books of the Bible. This helps ensure that a congregation hears what God wants them to hear, and not simply what their minister thinks they ought to hear.
But expository preaching is not so much a method as it is a mindset. A minister who sees himself as an expositor knows that he is not the master of the Word, but its servant. He has no other ambition than to preach what the Scriptures actually teach. His aim is to be faithful to God’s Word so that his people can hear God’s voice. He himself is only God’s mouthpiece, speaking God’s message into the ears of God’s people, and thus into their minds and hearts. To that end, he carefully works his way through the Scriptures, reading, explaining, and applying them to his congregation. On occasion he may find it necessary to address some pastoral concerns in a topical fashion, but even then his sermons come from his exposition of particular passages of Scripture. Rather than focusing on his own spiritual experience, or on current events, or on what he perceives as his congregation’s needs and interests, the minister gives his fullest attention to teaching what the Bible actually says.
2. In a few paragraphs, how did you discover your gifts in preaching?
By the grace of God, even as a small boy my heart was drawn to using my talents to the very best of my ability, and in a way that would bring glory to God. Pastoral ministry always seemed to be one way to be a faithful steward of whatever gifts the Lord had given me. I generally paid close attention to what various ministers were doing in the pulpit, and would sometimes imagine what it would be like to preach the gospel. As I envisioned it, this would be in a church where people were eager to listen and taking notes.
I can remember going out with my father for ice cream when I was in the eighth grade and talking about what I would do with my life. Pastoral ministry was one calling that we discussed, and I went in to speak with our pastor about what it was like to be a pastor, what books I ought to read, what was hard about the pastoral ministry, and so forth. It was not until college, though, that I became clear in my inward call. When Lisa and I began dating our freshman year it was already apparent to her that I was heading in that direction. In general, there was a growing sense that this and this only is what I was born to do: preach the Word.
3. Who has modeled biblical preaching for you?
The pastor in my home church growing up—Bob Harvey at Bethel Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Wheaton, Illinois—had an exceptional gift for connecting the Old Testament to the New Testament by way of Christ-centered biblical theology. At various times in my life I have had the privilege to sit under the regular preaching of R. Kent Hughes (College Church, Wheaton), William Still (Gilcomston South Church, Aberdeen), Dick Lucas (St. Helen’s Bishopgate), and James Boice (Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia). Each of these men had his own distinctive style, but they all had a passionate commitment to expository preaching, with a genuine enthusiasm for what God has said in his Word.
4. Do you have any thoughts on the current concern over ‘redemptive-historical’ preaching? How does preaching Christ from all the Scriptures govern the shape of your sermons?
I have been strongly influenced by Geerhardus Vos, Sidney Greidanus, Edmund Clowney, and other advocates of redemptive-historical preaching. What I take to be the main point of this emphasis is exactly right: that we are to preach Christ from all the Scriptures, as Jesus himself did (see Luke 24:25-27). This is especially important to remember in preaching from the Old Testament. Every sermon is a presentation of the gospel of the crucified and risen Christ. I have a concern, though, that what sometimes passes for redemptive-historical preaching today is less than fully biblical in that it downplays the need for practical application. Here we need to follow the example of the New Testament, which uses the Old Testament both to preach Christ and to make practical application from the Scriptures to daily Christian living. “Now these things took place as examples for us,” Paul writes, “that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Cor. 10:6).
I’m not sure how preaching Christ from all the Scriptures governs the shape of my sermons, per se, but in all of my preaching—from whatever text in the Bible—I want the gospel content outlined in 1 Corinthians 15:1-5 to be made clear.
5. What books on preaching have you found most influential in your own preaching?
I find Bryan Chapell’s book on Christ-Centered Preaching to be the best how-to manual for beginning to learn how to preach. For capturing the flavor of what preaching is all about my favorite book is John Piper’s The Supremacy of God in Preaching.
6. What has been your practice in preaching as regards consecutive expository, textual or topical preaching?
My general practice is to preach expository sermons from consecutive passages in whole books of the Bible. On occasion I have preached a more topical series, but I have generally done this in expositional format. That is to say, I have preached expository sermons on a variety of passages that all related to a unified topic. For example, I preached a series of sermons on “The Message of Salvation” (now published by IVP in a book of the same name) from a wide variety of passages in the Old and New Testaments. Following the example of John Newton, I have preached through many of the texts in Messiah. Or to give yet another example, I have preached through the attributes of God listed in the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism by choosing a biblical narrative that illustrates each of these divine attributes (now published as Discovering God in Stories from the Bible).
7. Is there a sermon that you have heard, or a series of sermons, that continues to impress you?
I have had the rare privilege of hearing many wonderful sermons. Two individual sermons that stand out for me are the sermon that Eric Alexander preached at the memorial service for James Boice and the sermon Sinclair Ferguson preached on Romans 8:32 at the 2005 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America. I was deeply moved by the latter sermon – for me, it was the best sermon I have ever heard. I have also been helped greatly by the preaching that two of my predecessors (Donald Grey Barnhouse and James Montgomery Boice) did through the Book of Romans.
8. What concessions, if any, does the modern preacher have to make in order to speak to postmodernity?
I’m not sure that any preacher ever has to make any concessions to anything except the Word of God, to which he submits as his only ultimate authority. Of course it is true that any preacher needs to know the context in which he is preaching. What questions do people have in our culture? What aspects of the prevailing worldview most need to be confronted by biblical truth? What is hard for people to understand about God and his gospel because of their surrounding culture? These are important issues in communication and application. But we should recognize that the proclamation of the Gospel in spoken form is God’s permanent plan for the advance of his Kingdom.
9. What is the average length of your sermons? Has this changed over the years?
I try to tell myself that I am preaching for 30 minutes, but usually it is more like 35. The average length of my sermons has not changed. However, I find that I have to work harder to keep things to 30-35 minutes, which I believe to be about the right length for our congregation. Typically I edit out about 20% of my material, and the sermon is usually better for it.
10. Would you briefly describe the main elements of how you go about preparing a sermon?
I generally spend my mornings in study, prayer, writing, and preparation to preach. I try to do all of my main exegetical and commentary work on Mondays, with the goal of having an 8 to 10 page outline by the end of Monday morning, complete with main ideas, thoughts for an introduction and conclusion, lines of application, illustrations, etc. Then I take two hours or so every morning to write at least one section of the sermon, working from beginning to end. Typically I will go back through the entire sermon for one major revision on Saturday or else early Sunday morning.
You can download here, both in audio or video, Philip Ryken’s latest sermons.
(please note: in response to my questionairre, Dr Ryken sent me a copy of a very similar interview that he conducted with Reformation 21 magazine. I have been unable to locate the specific issue but Philip’s comments remain unaltered. I have slightly adapted the question order and question form where appropriate. Thanks to Dr Ryken for permission to do this)