The Need for Expositional Preaching (part 1)

james-coleman-tcGU1VaCtDw-unsplash.jpgIt has been said, “There is no genuinely good preaching except exposition.” Such serious words require us to consider what expositional preaching is and why it is so important that preachers commit themselves to this kind of preaching.

In an attempt to answer that question, this is the first in a four-part series on biblical exposition. It is an update from a previous blog series I wrote when I pastored in Indiana. It relates to this week’s sermon on Deuteronomy 4:32–40 and it attempts to show why our church is committed to biblical exposition.

If you have never heard of expositional preaching, I hope this might be a helpful introduction and biblical apologia. If you are already convinced that biblical exposition is the best form of preaching Scripture, I pray this short series might help give you something to share with others who are less persuaded.

Today I will start with defining biblical exposition. In the following days I will make a biblical theological argument for the practice. Along the way, feel free to share your feedback and/or why you are committed (or not) to biblical exposition.

What is Biblical Exposition?

In short, expositional preaching is the kind of preaching that makes the main point of the biblical text the main point of the sermon. Mark Dever defines it this way: “An expositional sermon is a sermon that takes the main point of a passage of Scripture [and] makes it the main point of the sermon, and applies it to life today.” Therefore, he continues, it does not mean that exposition is narrowly focused on one or two verses; expositional preaching can have small, medium, or large sections of Scripture (i.e., one verse or one book). An expositional sermon need not be lifeless, boring, or overly technical. Surely many “expositors” are dull or have preached overly technical messages, but those examples simply illustrate bad exposition, not true exposition.

Expositional preaching demands the preacher know the Word he is preaching and the Word as it was originally intended by the biblical author. Such a method defends the congregation from hearing a small sampling of “hobby horse” sermons, and it enables (and even demands) the pastor and the church to move through the whole counsel of God. In the life of a congregation, only expositional preaching will expose a Christian to all the doctrines of the Bible presented in their original contexts, along with their original applications to life.

Expositional preaching stands in opposition to a number of other popular, but less powerful forms of preaching: topical, (auto)biographical, felt needs, etc. Over time expositional sermons demonstrate how one ought to interpret the Bible; they communicate doctrine with application to life; and they ground the life of the believer in the Word of God, not the personality of the preacher or the most recent psychological fad.

For all these reasons and more, we find a strong reason for committing to biblical exposition. Still, is this the way commended in Scripture? And if so, why has it fallen out of fashion in many pulpits today? What follows will answer the latter question; tomorrow we’ll begin considering where Scripture models biblical exposition.

A Brief (and Admittedly, Parochial) History of Expositional Preaching

Expositional preaching went of fashion in the twentieth century, especially among Southern Baptists. As many SBC pastors received training at the hands of moderates and liberals, expositional preaching was deemphasized in the seminaries because commitment to the Scriptures waned. Instead attention was given to therapeutic counseling, psychological solutions, and managerial techniques.

David Wells, in his classic No Place for Truth, chronicles the depletion of theology in American churches during the 1900s. In addition to the bad theology that arose in Southern Baptist seminaries during the middle of the twentieth century, Wells goes on to show how business models, American individualism, and mass media worked together to remove doctrine from churches and replace it with entertainment in excess.

One casualty during this era was the Sunday sermon. Instead of heralding the truth of the gospel (i.e., moving from text to congregation), preachers “polled their audiences” to find out what the masses wanted to hear. As a result, the sovereign choice of the congregation encroached upon the sovereign Lord and his authoritative Word.

During this era, one pastor stands out as an exception: W. A. Criswell. Without witnessing any models of exposition, Criswell stumbled into expositional preaching. Here’s what he said about his approach,

When I first began to preach as a teenager … I preached about whatever fell by chance into my mind. I preached according to whatever some incident or event or saying would suggest. That is about as poor a way to prepare a sermon as could be found in all the world …Why should I struggle to think up topics for my sermons … when I could let inspiring and informative texts speak for themselves? … Suddenly I found myself really proclaiming the Word, book by book, text by text, cover to cover from Genesis to Revelation. I felt new power. Instead of pacing the floor, stressed and anxious, trying to find some new topic to preach, I was pacing the floor with excitement, caught up in the might and majesty of God’s Word …” (Cited in Stephen Nelson Rummage, Planning Your Preaching81).

Indeed in an era when expositional preaching was lacking, Criswell stood out as a bright light. He was soon followed by others, including Adrian Rogers. On the subject of preaching, Adrian Rogers listed four purposes of preaching: to confront, to clarify, to convict, and to convert. On the point of clarification, he said, “All good preaching is teaching.” This is at the heart of expositional preaching. Expositional preaching teaches what is in the text for the purpose of leading sinners to encounter the living Christ and by faith and repentance to either be saved or be sanctified.

Expositional Preaching Today

Today, expositional preaching has returned to many seminaries, but still it needs to find a place in local churches. As to the former, seminary leaders like Albert Mohler and Daniel Akin have championed expositional preaching, and as to the latter men like the late James Montgomery Boice (through his commentaries) and John MacArthur (through his radio preaching and commentaries) have demonstrated how winsome and exciting expositional preaching can be for the believer who lives on God’s word. Consider MacArthur’s definition of exposition:

Expository preaching familiarizes people with the Scripture itself instead of simply giving them a speech, as true and as reflective of biblical teaching as that speech may be. With expository preaching, people become familiar with the Scripture. They can go back to the passages that have been addressed, and they can be reminded by the text itself of what it means. So you give people the Word of God in a way that has long-term impact, because it makes them familiar with Scripture.

MacArthur speaks with the heart of pastor, and he explains why expositional preaching is the method of choice for the local church. As opposed to the traveling evangelist who prepares a fine-tuned speech to draw in the lost; the pastor has the responsibility of feeding a flock that (if God allows) will graze together for decades at a time. What the local flock needs is different than a weekly pep rally or revival service. The best food that can be prepared week-in and week-out is a regular diet of expositional sermons.

All in all, expositional preaching has witnessed a revival in many churches and should give hope to evangelical believers that entering the twenty-first century, the church will not be built up by gimmicks and marketing, but by the regular (and often unimpressive) exposition of God’s word. As Adrian Rogers once said, “I believe preaching is central, and not because I happen to be the preacher. I believe that the message, preaching, is the stack pole around which everything else is built.”

Certainly, Roger’s ministry testified to effectiveness of his preaching, but we need to ask what Scripture itself says about the matter: Is expositional preaching the only kind of preaching? Tomorrow, I will answer that question and show from Scripture how expositional preaching (in its various formsis modeled and commanded in Scripture.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash