10 Things You Should Know about the Nature of Expository Preaching
In two previous installments of “10 things you should know” we looked at ten reasons why preaching in general has fallen on hard times, as well as ten reasons why biblical preaching is critically important. Today we look at the nature of expositional preaching and why it is, in my opinion, the far superior approach to making known the written Word of God.
By “expository” or “expositional” or “exegetical” preaching I have in mind a particular style or method in preaching. As Sinclair Ferguson explains, in expository preaching
“the explanation of Scripture forms the dominant feature and the organizing principle of the message. All preaching should be based on the apostolic kerygma and didache. Exegetical preaching is governed by the goal of expounding the meaning and significance of this 'faith once-delivered' in terms of the actual way in which it has been delivered, namely the structure and content of the biblical revelation, in which truth is revealed not in the form of a series of theological or topical loci (God, sin, justification, sanctification; war, money, social ethics, etc.), but through history, parable, narrative, argumentation, poem, and so on. Exegetical preaching therefore sees as its fundamental task the explanation of the text in its context, the unfolding of its principles, and only then their application to the world of hearers” (“Exegesis,” in The Preacher and Preaching, 192-93).
Bryan Chapell concurs:
“Scripture rules over what expositors preach because they unfold what it says. The meaning of the passage is the message of the sermon. The text governs the preacher. Expository preachers do not expect others to honor their opinions. Such ministers adhere to Scripture's truths and expect their listeners to heed the same” (23).
(1) It is important that we note different forms or approaches to expository preaching. One legitimate method of expository preaching is what I call paragraph preaching in which a larger section of Scripture is summarily explained and from which both application and exhortation then arise (perhaps even as the dominant elements in the sermon).
(2) Others may prefer what I call contextual, line-upon-line preaching in which a shorter section of Scripture is explained phrase-by-phrase with careful attention being paid to the structure of the author's developing argument.
(3) Another approach is contextual, thought-upon-thought preaching, which is similar to the previous approach but with less focus on the details of the text and more emphasis on summarized assertions of the primary themes.
(4) My own preference is what I call consecutive, verse-by-verse preaching in which one preaches through a book of the Bible one verse at a time rather than one paragraph at a time (those who take this approach vary in the amount of time spent in any one verse: Martyn Lloyd-Jones [who took 14 years to preach through the book of Romans!] would often preach 3-5 sermons on one verse of Scripture, whereas someone like James Montgomery Boice would cover ground more rapidly).
(5) There is also what I call random, singular verse preaching in which one preaches one verse at a time from different portions of the Bible (it differs from the previous approach only in that the preacher does not proceed consecutively through only one book of the Bible at a time). This was Charles Spurgeon’s preferred method.
(6) And now I turn to those reasons why I believe expository, consecutive, verse-by-verse preaching is superior to all other styles In the first place, expository preaching models and teaches the congregation how to read and study the Bible for themselves. Most Christians will mimic (in a good sense) the model they see and hear week in and week out in the pulpit. The way they see and hear their pastor approach and handle and proclaim the Scriptures will become, often unconsciously, the way they do so in their own study and devotional life.
(7) Expository preaching is the most effective way to teach the content of the Bible. Exposition unpacks for people both the broad sweep of God's activity in redemptive history and the particular principles and truths of theology so essential for growth in Christ. Geoffrey Thomas explains:
“Texts are found within a certain context, and the connections among the truths are as essential to understanding as the separate propositions themselves. They are not gems to be brought out of a silver casket, brandished to all, and then returned. Verses are not isolated sentences, but are set in narratives or are part of sustained arguments. Preaching through books of the Bible enables us to declare the whole counsel of God and delivers men from imbalance” (“Powerful Preaching,” 374).
Or, as Bryan Chapell says, with expository preaching “the congregation will learn to see the organizing themes and schemes of the Bible instead of perceiving it as an impenetrable mishmash of maxims, morals, and stories” (58).
(8) Expository preaching is the most effective way for the preacher to learn the content of the Bible. The sort of preparatory study essential to preach expositionally enhances the preacher's growth in the knowledge of the Word in a way that other forms of preaching do not. When one is compelled to preach systematically through a book of the Bible, the preacher finds that he must address a greater number of issues and problems than would otherwise readily spring to mind.
(9) Expository preaching is a check against hobby-horse preaching. That is to say, preaching verse-by-verse through a book of the Bible guards the preacher from obsessive preoccupation with his own cherished themes, which are all too often remote from either the interests or needs of the congregation.
(10) Expository preaching insures that the people of God will be fed a full, well-balanced diet of the Word of God. The Scriptures are such that consistent exposition will yield teaching on the full range of theological issues, ethics (both individual and corporate), family obligations, social responsibility, etc.
One argument against consecutive expositional preaching is that it deprives the preacher of the freedom to follow the spontaneous prompting of the Holy Spirit concerning issues that may be especially urgent for a segment of the congregation. However, I am not suggesting that once an expositional series has been started that it cannot be interrupted. One should always feel free to break from a series to address immediate needs made known by the Spirit.
But we should also remember that consecutive expositional preaching will, in time, cover virtually every issue and need. For example, one person insists that the church needs to hear about God's grace while another points to spiritual warfare as most pressing. Someone else is convinced that the relationship between husband and wife needs addressing while yet another points to the woeful lack of understanding about the nature of sanctification. What is a preacher to do?
May I suggest an expositional series preaching verse-by-verse through the book of Ephesians? In doing so, each of those topics is addressed, as well as countless others. All urgent needs are met, at the same time the congregation is exposed to the theological consistency, beauty, symmetry, literary artistry, and contextual flow of this inspired epistle. In doing so, the people are alerted to where in God's Word and how in God's Word these matters are addressed. Their minds are thus anchored in the Scriptures.
Geoffrey Thomas puts it this way:
"The Word should be preached in its connectedness because that brings the whole counsel of God to bear upon the people and gives to the minister the opportunity to reprove, rebuke, and display every kind of evil without being accused of aiming his preaching at individuals [or, as Chapell says, 'sensitive matters can be addressed without the appearance of pointing a finger at persons or problems in the church (the matters simply appear next in the text sequence and avoiding them would even be more obvious) (58)]. It also relieves the minister of the hesitation and doubt that otherwise attend the selection of his texts as Sunday grows near" (375).