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Phillip Jensen

Explicatory Preaching, with Phillip Jensen

By Phillip Jensen

MD = Mark Dever
PJ = Phillip Jensen

MD: I’m going to reveal something shocking about Phillip Jensen.  You told me that you don’t believe in expositional preaching.

[In fact, Jensen calls it Explicatory Preaching.]

PJ: No.  Absolutely.  I used to.  But it was like being an evangelical.  It’s a useless thing to be.  When words reach the stage where everybody claims them, then words reach the stage where they don’t mean anything.  Who is an evangelical is Protestantism these days?  Everybody’s an evangelical, and if everyone’s an evangelical, nobody’s an evangelical.  By and large I didn’t create this word, but I think most evangelicals are really evanjellyfish.  They’re just spineless people hanging on to a conceptual word that will bring them into the crowd and that just misses the point.  Persecution does clarify things, and when a particular group becomes dominant, you pick up a lot of fellow travelers, who are not really doing, who are not really believing the same thing.  Well, expositional preaching is like that.  I have not found a Protestant minister who has told me that they do not expound the scriptures.  Even people who speak topically every time think they expound the scriptures.  So therefore, exposition and expounding is now lost.

MD: Did you agree with what I said [in the Nine Marks of a Healthy Church booklet] about preaching, or are you talking about something different?

PJ:  No, it’s that kind of thing.  I like it.  It’s that dynamic view that you have in there that I like.  It’s not a formula, it’s not a format—you do these three things and that’s exposition.  You can hear different people doing it very differently.  John Stott, Dick Lucas, two English preachers who never sound even vaguely alike yet they’re both doing it.  John Stott will tell you the structure of the passage and give you three points that’s there and when you see the three points, you’re enabled never to read that passage again without seeing the three points and you’re sure that the Apostle Paul had them written on on his pad, and then John Stott’s got the pad, the notes, and the outline, and it’s all structured.  Dick Lucas, he just wanders all over the passage and you don’t know where he’s going and then suddenly he pulls one phrase out, and then, with that phrase, you see what the whole thing is about.  It’s a different way of preaching.  Exposition is not—I’ve got the book open, or I’m following this formula, or I’ve read all the commentaries.  A commentary sermon is terribly boring.  Explication is to explain what the passage itself is saying.

MD: Any advice for young pastors trying to shift the congregation from topical to explicatory [preaching]?…Some complaints are that it’s too heavy or boring….

PJ: If they’re just out of college, they’re boring.  If you’re not boring just out of college, you didn’t learn enough in college.  It’s when you’re five years out and you’re still boring that you’ve got a problem. I know my blokes coming out of college are a bit heavy; I’m more worried about them coming out of college and being a bit lite.  That’s a bigger problem, ‘cause in five years they’re dead boring.  The age is one thing.  Say they’re out a few years—there’s a few factors involved.  If you’re trying to woo a congregation onto this, you must see it as part of the ministry you’re exercising, and it’s important that you love the people you’re speaking to and that they learn to love you.  There are certain issues in ministry that you’re going to be fighting about.  Therefore, you mustn’t fight over the ones you don’t have to fight about.  You’ve got to choose which hill you’re going to be dying on.  I think expounding the scriptures is the hill to die on.  So I wouldn’t go for negotiation over that.  But if I were going to die on that hill, I really have to win them over on everything else I can win them over on.  And if that means that I’ve got to go and kiss babies and I’ve got to go and pet dogs (and I hate dogs—it’s not mutual—dogs love me, for breakfast, lunch and dinner—any time), but that’s their life, they’re the people God has entrusted to my care and I’ve got to care for them, really and properly.  If they know that I love them, they are much more willing to listen to my leadership when I say we’ve got to start listening to the Bible and stop playing superficial games on pop psychology.  When I actually do preach, I’ve got to be really good.  To really be better, it may be that I have to compromise on the length of time.  There’s nothing expository—an explicatory preacher doesn’t have to preach for 50 minutes whereas a topical preacher can do it in five.  It may be that you’ve got—being married is key at this point, because your wife will tell you—you’ve got to learn how long you can genuinely preach for and hold the interest of the congregation.  You need some people in the congregation to tell you that at 35 minutes they were all fidgeting or at 20 minutes there was actually nobody listening anymore, sounds to me like you’re a 20 minute preacher and you need to make sure you succeed in 20 minutes.  Rather than feeling like Dr. Lloyd-Jones preached for 45 minutes and therefore I must preach for 45 minutes, that that’s the magic part of the process.  I’ve got to seduce and woo people into hearing the Word of God, then I’ve got to avoid the commentaries.  Commentaries are a very useful tool, but they can be deadening on preachers.  You’ve got to spend more time in the text, more time thinking about the Bible yourself, and less time answering all the problems that the commentators have.  The commentaries are written by a group of scholars who are talking to each other, and they raise questions and answer questions, and the debate has been moving on, and it’s been running for about a hundred years or so.  It is not where the person in the pew is asking any questions, and it’s often not what the text of the Scripture is saying either. 

To listen to the complete interview on tape, please call our supplier, Sound Word Associates, at (219) 548-0933.  For subscriptions to the 9Marks Audio Interview Series, call (202) 543-1224 or email us at