Preaching With Spurgeon: An Interview with Alistair Begg

Alistair Begg has served as Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio since 1983. He’s also the Bible teacher on “Truth for Life,” which is heard on the radio and online literally around the world. He’s a native of Glasgow, Scotland. Begg graduated from the London School of Theology, served churches in Scotland before coming to the U.S., and he is the general editor of the CSB Spurgeon Study Bible, which has recently been published by Holman Bibles.

Interview Transcript

Preaching: There really seems to have been a resurgence of interest in Charles Spurgeon in recent years, and the Spurgeon Study Bible is obviously part of that. What drives your interest in Spurgeon?

Begg: Ever since growing up in the UK, the name of Spurgeon was familiar to me. I suppose as soon as I was inclined towards pastoral ministry, I was then increasingly interested in who this man was and the influence that he had. Really, there’s never been a time when Spurgeon hasn’t been part of my influence, if you like. Then, when I was a student in London, we used to play Spurgeon’s College at football and soccer. When we went over there, I would see the evidence of the great man. It’s just been something that has influenced me all the way along, not least of all his lectures to his students.

Preaching: Obviously Spurgeon was a great 19th-century preacher. What does he have to say to 21st century Christians and to pastors?

Begg: I think the wonderful thing about Spurgeon is that, although he earthed his expositions in the culture of his day, the principles and the doctrinal framework out of which he was working is as timeless as the Bible itself. In actual fact, as I was involved in working on this material, I was struck again and again by the way in which Spurgeon’s ability to move from the text to the issues of the day, although the issues were different, he was masterful at that. In terms of his influence on pastors today, I think he’s a study in how to preach, as it were, between two worlds – to bring the text of Scripture to bear upon the listener in a way that is timely and relevant.

Preaching: Obviously Spurgeon was a very effective preacher in his time. A lot of people today talk about Spurgeon as a model. In what ways do you see Spurgeon’s preaching perhaps modeling for today’s preachers? Also, are there ways in which we wouldn’t necessarily be best in following him?

Begg: Yes, I think first of all, the Christocentric nature of his preaching is a model. He was absolutely clear that the central message of the Bible was that salvation belongs to the Lord, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Although that quote is usually attributed to him, I think he borrowed it from somebody else when he was reported to have said, “You can give me any text of the Bible and I will make way directly to Jesus.” Certainly he did that.

One of the young fellows from our church who’s been working on a Ph.D. in the University in Edinburgh sent me material when I was doing research for this. He was pointing out that he thought that the great influence was not simply that Spurgeon was Christocentric, but he was actually crucicentric in that he was so focused on the cross of Christ and the work of Christ in atonement that he would be tremendously helpful for many of us who may actually get ourselves tied up in knots and miss the main point.

With that said, we might have wished that he had worked more systematically and consecutively through the Scriptures than he did. He preached essentially in a topical way but in a very doctrinal way. I think it’s difficult to say that he was just a topical preacher because he really was a doctrinal teacher and he ties things into the large framework of God’s plan of redemption.

Preaching: Would you say that he was a Biblically faithful preacher, but not necessarily an expositor in the way that we talk about that term today?

Begg: I would actually say that he was an expositor, but not in the way that we talk about it today. The way in which it is largely spoken about in America is a sort of running commentary through the verses, but that is a particular notion of exposition. That wouldn’t necessarily have characterized, for example, the exposition of Martyn Lloyd-Jones in the 20th century, nor actually would it have been the pattern of somebody like John Stott in the sense that these men were able to thread the needle through a passage of Scripture in a way that left nothing behind in terms of the actual content of the material, but they weren’t simply going: “Look at what verse three says, and then look at what verse four says.” That notion of exposition has sort of taken hold as a result of the influence of some, but I think that that is a particular notion. All that said, I would say that Spurgeon was an expositor, but not in that way.

Preaching: This Spurgeon Study Bible is based on the Christian Standard Bible, the CSB, and that’s a relatively recent translation. Just curious, what did you find attractive about the CSB, particularly for this project?

Begg: I actually discovered the CSB as it were by accident when I was speaking at a seminary. They had given me a nice place to stay, and when I got up in the morning, I just took the Bible that was in the room and I began to read it. I realized I didn’t recognize the translation. I then discovered what it was. It was a happy discovery for me because I thought it read particularly well. As I’ve worked with the material, I think it fits somewhere in between the ESV and the NIV, in that it is a little more readable, I think, both from the pulpit and in private, than the ESV, which I use, but the dynamic equivalence of the NIV is not so strong in this CSB.

Preaching: We know you as a Biblical expositor. Tell me a little bit about why are you committed to expository preaching. What does that mean in terms of the preaching you do Sunday to Sunday in your own congregation?

Begg: I am the product of the influences on my life, and I’ve had the great privilege, really since childhood, in being in a kind of Timothy environment, where the models that I’ve had for the teaching of the Bible have been essentially the systematic consecutive exposition of the Scriptures. It never occurred to me to go at things in any other manner than that, because that was just the way I was schooled. What it allowed me to do, then, when I began, was to have somewhere to begin. I didn’t have to become peculiarly creative. I just had to find a book of the Bible. I began in Philippians when I was on my own way back in 1977. I chose Philippians because it was relatively short and I thought that probably I would manage to get through it without destroying the congregation.

The underlying conviction, of course, is just simply that these are God’s words breathed out by him. It is powerful in and of itself. The work of God’s Word, by the Holy Spirit, is what we loop to. That’s it, just the authority and sufficiency of Scripture is the underlying conviction that allows me to say to the congregation, “You’re sensible people. You must read this for yourself.”

Preaching: The vast majority of your preaching is in consecutive Biblical book series. Do you occasionally break off and do a doctrinal series or a thematic series?

Begg: Yes I do. Sometimes in the middle of a long series I’ll do that, just for the well-being of the congregation and also to bring freshness to things. When you’re working your way through a gospel that goes on and on and on, or through maybe an Old Testament book that might be a little more demanding. Yes.

I’m happier when I’m working much more textually than when I’m working topically. I’m not particularly good at that, I don’t think. It’s safer for me and for my congregation to stay with my routine pattern. Whether it’s in an Advent series, or whether it is to do a series, for example, on the fruit of the Spirit, which one can tackle in a far more topical way, and so on. Yes, I like to do that. Evangelistically as well, to address things.

Preaching: When you’re working, let’s say for example through a gospel, how long typically would a series like that be for you?

Begg: I always anticipate that it will be fairly short, and then it ends up just taking on a life of itself. I would have to go into my files to answer that question, but it would take, with the normal breaks for vacation and Easter and Christmas and whatever else comes along, probably I would be in the gospel of Mark for certainly a couple of years.

Preaching: As you and I are speaking right now, what book are you in now?

Begg: I’m in Ephesians right now. I’m in Ephesians 5, and I’ve just reached the point of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. We haven’t actually tackled that yet. That’s still to come. That’s where I am, in Ephesians 5. We’re about to get to husbands and wives and then into the sixth chapter and so on.

We’ve been taking it fairly slowly because it is wonderfully rich. Usually by the time I get to this point in a study like this, I feel like going back to the beginning, because I feel like I’ve understood it far better as I’ve gone on, and I wish I could really begin again because I think I could do a better job. I’m running out of time now for these kinds of opportunities.

Preaching: You’ve been at Parkside since 1983. Have you repeated any books?

Begg: I began with Nehemiah. I did a series called “Doing God’s Work God’s Way.” I have gone back to Nehemiah, and I think I’ve preached Nehemiah all over again after about maybe 10 or 12 years. I didn’t preach the same material. I went back to it because I felt that it had been so foundational and the congregation had grown and a number of the sort of underlying principles that we had laid out at the beginning, folks who’d come along later on were unaware of, and so I did it very purposefully. Beyond that, no because I’ve got a whole Bible and I’ve only got so long here to tackle it.

Preaching: What does your sermon preparation process look like as you move through the week, as you finish one Sunday and moving towards the next Sunday? What’s your preparation process?

Begg: It’s fairly basic. When you first graduate, you’re far more fluent in languages and probably a bit more punctilious. As time goes by, unless you’re really a scholar, which I’m not, then you’re relying really on your lexicons and on the work of others. I don’t have a good grasp of Hebrew, and I only have the dim and distant memories of … I’ve got enough to work my way through my Greek New Testament, but beyond that, I need somebody to tell me what the pluperfect was and whether this is in the aorist perfect and so on.

I begin as soon as I can in the week to look at the text, to read it, to ponder it. My approach is, first of all, to think myself empty. By that I mean at the beginning stages, just to think of anything and everything that occurs to me. It doesn’t matter if it is relevant or not in that early stage, just to put it all down. Notes, quotes, anecdotes, thoughts, illustrations, cross-references, anything at all. I think myself empty. Sometimes I can’t even fill a sheet of paper with my thoughts.

Anyway, think myself empty, and then into the next part of the process, to read myself full. In other words, to read both in the text and around the text and, within certain limits, to read what others have said about the text. In that process, gradually beginning to form a picture. Sometimes in the midst of that, I get an outline that seems just obvious to me, so I’m able to put it down. I used to worry about that tremendously in the early days and berate myself for its absence. Now I don’t worry about that unduly. Maybe I should more than I do, but I just keep going. Think myself empty, read myself full.

As I’m getting further into the week, I then write myself clear. This, for me, has been a crucial piece of the process. I’ve noticed that few people are able to go from what they have thought about to verbalizing it without actually doing some of their preparatory work in front of the congregation, as it were. Saying something and then saying, “I suppose we could look at that in a different way,” and therefore and so on.

What I’m trying to do in writing myself clear is prevent myself from doing that and have a clarity and a precision to my words that are there as a result of me being able to look at it written down and say, “I began in the past tense and I ended in the future tense, and I began in the singular and I got into the plural and back into the singular again.” In other words, it was terrible. When I look at that, then I realize I have to do much better in the way I’m going to say this.

I write myself clear, pray myself hot, and then I seek to be myself and forget myself. That’s the sort of process. Think empty, read full, write clear, pray hot, be yourself and forget yourself.

Preaching: Besides Spurgeon, who are the preachers who have most influenced you in your ministry?

Begg: Some of them would be unknown to anybody here. The late James Graham, who was a Scottish Baptist minister in suburban London, Dick Lucas of St. Helen’s Bishopsgate in London, John Stott, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Eric Alexander, Sinclair Ferguson, John MacArthur. To a lesser degree, Chuck Swindoll, in the way in which he was able to approach the text. From a distance, Howard Hendricks, and I could go on.

Preaching: Those are some great names. One last question: if you could offer a piece of advice to a young preacher, what would it be?

Begg: The preparation of our heart is far more significant than the preparation of our head. It’s easier to spend a long, long time studying the text to deliver to our congregation than it is for most of us to pray for insight and for wisdom and for all that is necessary in the communication of the text. What I have to say to myself all the time is from Isaiah 66, “This is the one to whom I will look, says the Lord, he who is humble, contrite in spirit and who trembles at my Word.”

I want to say a young guy, let’s both of us come to the text on our knees, as it were. Let’s remind ourselves that God puts his treasure in old clay pots. Let’s make sure that we’re not communicating to the congregation how much we’ve studied or how eloquent we are or “listen to me”, but rather, we simply go into the kitchen and we do our best in the preparation of the meal. We bring it out and we set the table before the congregation, in the awareness of the fact that ultimately Christ is the preacher, and that it is the voice of Christ, by the Holy Spirit, that needs to be heard, and when heard, becomes life-changing.