WHAT IS EXPOSITORY PREACHING?
Preaching has fallen upon rough times within contemporary evangelicalism. Modern church growth gurus are tolerant of many things, except for the subject of preaching because they see it as a church killer. It is viewed as irrelevant and too boring for our high-tech and sophisticated society. Preaching sermons may have been okay for listeners during the primitive times of the Old Testament prophets, the apostles, the Reformers, and even a few decades ago, but times have changed. Steven J. Lawson explains:
A new way of “doing” church is emerging. In this radical paradigm shift, exposition is being replaced with entertainment, preaching with performances, doctrine with drama, and theology with theatrics. The pulpit, once the focal point of the church, is now being overshadowed by a variety of church-growth techniques, everything from trendy worship styles to glitzy presentations and vaudeville-like pageantries. In seeking to capture the upper hand in church growth, a new wave of pastors is reinventing church and repackaging the gospel into a product to be sold to “consumers.”1
It’s difficult to argue against this paradigm shift pragmatically. Church attendance is up. An explosion is occurring with mega-churches dotting the American landscape, while hundreds – if not thousands – of smaller churches striving to follow their footsteps. It does appear that preaching-removal, or at least a minimization of it, is rejuvenating Christianity. Maybe the aging Paul got it wrong when he emphatically tells the younger pastor Timothy, “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom; preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Tim. 4:1-2).
Before joining a growing crowd seeking to put preaching out of its misery, consider the following: Are churches that abandon preaching stronger spiritually? Immediately after the above exhortation, Paul prophetically writes, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths” (4:3-4). This apostle, writing under divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, sees a direct connection between preaching and the spiritual health condition of a church. Merely an increase in church attendance is a poor marker of this condition.
However—and this is a big however—this issue must be pressed further. Will any kind of preaching suffice? Preaching, just any kind of preaching, is no solution in and of itself. That why Paul inserts a clarification of sound doctrine (1 Timothy 4:3). Consequently, the apostle is after a particular kind of preaching. The great need of churches is this particular kind of preaching. It is a kind of preaching rooted in a Scriptural text(s) that seeks God’s approval rather than men, and is willing to pay the price of long hours of prayer and study for the sake of accurate Biblical interpretation. This kind of preaching is commonly known as expository preaching. So what exactly is this strange-sounding kind of preaching?
What Expository Preaching Is Not
Before we get too far, it may be helpful to see what it is not. First, the length of a Biblical text being exposited is no indication. An expositional sermon may cover an entire book, a chapter, a paragraph, a couple of verses, a single verse, or even a single phrase (although this should be more of an exception rather than a norm).
Second, preaching systematically through a Biblical book is not exposition. While normally this approach is desirable as it contributes to preaching “the whole council of God,” a preacher may fail to be expositional simply by preaching verse-by-verse. He might just be providing a running commentary complete with various insights and comments, yet still miss entirely the intent or thrust of a particular passage. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, as Irvin A. Busenitz points out, “…preaching that is not verse-by-verse is not necessarily non-expository.” A sermon may receive expositional approval even if there is a focus on numerous texts. So while normally systematic and expositional preaching will travel down the same road together, an important distinction still exists.
Third, it is important to note that expository preaching is not exegetical preaching. Every expositional sermon demands the work of exegetical study whereby terms receive definitions, nouns receive declensions, verbs receive parsing, syntax receives evaluation, and a whole host of other considerations occur. But to preach this valuable information in raw form will either put listeners to sleep or have them begging for homiletical mercy. Rather, expository preaching constructs a finely crafted home in turnkey condition ready for dwelling or market rather than offering a pile of bricks, a stack of two-by-fours, and a box of nails all sitting on an empty lot.
And finally, expository preaching is not a time for voicing opinions. Yes, occasionally an appropriate opinion finds its way into a pulpit; the point being, however, that this is not the essence of what exposition is about. Exposition provides explanation and clarity as to what God says; opinions leave listeners guessing. Exposition paves the road for conviction and personal appropriation of divine truth whereas opinions encourage a meandering and failure to act with confidence. Thus an expositor carries the same responsibility to declare, “Thus says the Lord!”
What Expository Preaching Is
So what is expository preaching? The following list is not exhaustive but it does attempt to provide indispensable characteristics. In order for preaching to be expositional, it must contain the following five traits:
The first indispensable characteristic is that it is based upon the Scripture (1 Timothy 4:13; 2 Timothy 3:15-17). Here is the sine qua non or the absolute prerequisite of expository preaching; obviously without the Scripture to begin with there can be no exposition of it. Merrill F. Unger powerfully writes:
It begins in the Bible and ends in the Bible and all that intervenes springs from the Bible. In other words, expository preaching is Bible-centered preaching. Whatever extra-Biblical material is employed—illustrations from human experience, history, archaeology, philosophy, art or science—must be purely subsidiary and strictly fitted into one single aim—to elucidate the portion of Scripture chosen, whatever its length, and enforce its claims upon the hearers.3
This is what fundamentally drives the entire process. Once a preacher has a Biblical text, then he has something to preach. Once a congregation has a passage, then they have something to learn. “The meaning of the text,” as Pastor John MacArthur states, “is the text!” Expository preaching is textually-driven! Whereas the current trend within Christendom is to be purpose-driven, expository preaching reminds churches that a sermon without a text or texts has no lasting value.
The second indispensable characteristic of expository preaching is its explanatory nature. This isn’t where a preacher merely restates a passage, but goes beyond to provide explanation or interpretation. This trait is seen clearly in Nehemiah 8:8 in the expositional preaching of Ezra and the Levites, “They read from the book, from the law of God, translating [or better rendered, explaining] to give the sense so that they understood the reading.” Here is that critical element of expository preaching. Another example is found in Paul’s preaching at Thessalonica, “And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ’” (Acts 17:2-3). The idea behind explaining is “to open up” or “to make evident.” It is the job description of the preacher to explain the text. Believers can read the Bible for themselves, but God blesses churches with pastors/teachers (Ephesians 4:11) to dig deeper than a devotional level. But this kind of preaching demands a preacher to do his homework. The Scripture comes by divine inspiration; proper interpretation comes by divine perspiration. Before the Holy Spirit blesses a man’s preaching in the pulpit, He wants to meet him in his private study beforehand (see 2 Timothy 2:15).
The third indispensable characteristic of expository preaching is that it preaches the whole truth. O the temptation is great for preachers to shy from this! Selective preaching whereby a man plays hopscotch working through a passage is not exposition. Granted, some subjects are easier to preach than others, but they all are important! When sermons gravitate only to certain subjects (e.g., God’s love, grace, words of encouragement, how to be joyful, etc.), not only does it fail to preach the whole truth but also it fails to give even those subjects mentioned the depth they require. God’s wrath, the seriousness of sin, divorce, and sexual immorality are preached because they have ample space in God’s written revelation. Paul sets the preaching standard high when he informs the elders at Ephesus, “For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27). The whole truth of God demands proclamation. Listen to John Elias, a nineteenth-century Welsh preacher:
There is a great defect in the manner of many preachers. It can scarcely be said that the Gospel is preached by them. Their sermons are very confused; they contain many expressions which are not taught by the Holy Ghost; and subjects are so clothed with new words, that it is difficult to know what is meant. Though these preachers may not be accused of saying what is false, yet, alas, they neglect stating weighty and necessary truths when opportunities offer…Omitting any truth intentionally in a sermon leads to the denial of it. 4
Preaching anything less than whole truth is not exposition.
The fourth indispensable characteristic of expository preaching is that it involves passionate preaching. Sometimes what gets overlooked in an explanation of expository preaching is the word preaching. A preacher is not only a teacher but also a herald! A genuine expositor cannot handle life-changing truth in a mundane manner; rather, it will be saturated with passion! Jeremiah preached with tears to unrepenting Judah (Jeremiah 9:1ff). Homiletical passion is synonymous with persuasion. Paul sought to persuade King Agrippa of the Gospel (Acts 26:27-29). D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones relates this timeless account:
A man came…on one occasion to the great George Whitefield and asked if he might print his sermons. Whitefield gave this reply; he said, “Well, I have no inherent objection, if you like, but you will never be able to put on the printed page the lightning and the thunder.” That is the distinction – the sermon, and the “lightning and the thunder.”5
Expository preaching is a thunderstorm event in pulpits.
And the fifth indispensable characteristic of expository preaching is that it is Christ-centered. When writing to the church that troubled his ministry most, Paul tells the Corinthians, “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Does this mean that the only subject that Paul preached to them was a message on salvation? Clearly not since numerous other topics are found throughout the rest of this epistle. What the apostle is saying is that his preaching centers upon the person and work of Jesus Christ. This last trait should come as no surprise. Everything and everyone depends upon Christ. Creation depends upon Christ (John 1:3). Salvation depends upon Christ (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). The future depends upon Christ (Revelations 19:11-16). Thus expository preaching depends upon Christ. Also, since the focus of expository preaching is upon the exposition of Scripture and the focus of the Scripture is upon the Messiah (Genesis 3:15; Luke 24:25-27; Acts 8:35), then expository preaching must be Christ-centered preaching.
What is expository preaching? After a brief consideration of these five indispensable traits, a possible definition is:
Expository preaching is preaching based upon Biblical text(s) that explains its meaning, including the whole truth of, in a passionate manner that centers upon the Lord Christ
If the above is understood, then even a shorter definition is possible:
Expository preaching is preaching what God actually says in the Bible
The desperate need of churches is not just preaching, but this kind of particular preaching.