Arguing for Expository Preaching
Part one: fifteen incontrovertible arguments in favour of expository preaching
In his book "The Contemporary Christian", John Stott describes the preacher's task as follows: "To preach is to open up the inspired text with such faithfulness and sensitivity that God's voice is heard and God's people obey him". I want to argue that best [but not the only] way of preaching is Expository Preaching - that is preaching and teaching through books of the Bible one by one.
I'm not arguing for boring Expository Preaching, nor do I think that the expository method will by itself ensure that the full message of the Bible is heard. We need a sound Biblical Theology to do that. For is to quite possible to use the expository method and yet give merely moralistic sermons:
Genesis 1, the importance of creativity
Genesis 2, how we should value family and pets
Genesis 3, all families have problems
Genesis 4, we must learn how to forgive. Etc.
We need both Biblical Theology and Expository Preaching to show the full depth and breadth of the Bible's teaching.
I am arguing that as a general practice Expository Preaching makes sense and is of great value to the preacher and the congregation.
Expository Preaching is the preaching of the message of a book of the Bible, usually verse by verse, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter, by explanation and application of it to the congregation. It was the preaching method of the Reformers, and that of Early Church preachers like Augustine and John Chrysostom.
Here are 15 Incontrovertible Arguments in favour of Expository Preaching:
- Preaching through the books of the Bible, verse by verse, chapter by chapter, respects and reflects God's authorship. God did not gives us a book of quotable quotes, nor a dictionary of useful texts, nor an anthology of inspiring ideas. When God caused the Scriptures to be written the medium that he used was that of books of the Bible. If that was good enough for the author it should be good enough for the preacher.
- Expository Preaching reflects God's respect for human authors. One of the most beautiful features of the Bible is the way in which God causes his truth to be written and yet does not over-ride the individual writer, but respects their place in history, their vocabulary, their spoken and literary style. If God is so careful to respect the human authors of the Scriptures we should endeavour to do the same by reading, studying, preaching and teaching their books in the order in the way in they wrote them.
- Expository Preaching respects the historical context of each part of the Bible. The Bible is not a set of timeless truths removed from historical context, but each book of the Bible is firmly rooted in history, and the perspective of its human author. We do most justice to this historical context when we preach texts in their context, that is in the writing in which they occur.
- Expository Preaching respects the context of salvation history. The unfolding drama of salvation is brought to us within salvation history; and each text, verse, chapter and book has its place within that salvation history. The best way to preach these books is to link them to their place in salvation history, not to extract from them trans-historical, theological, pastoral or devotional themes.
- Expository Preaching should help us to unfold the deep Biblical Theology of the Bible, the content and message of God's unfolding revelation, and seeing every part of the Bible in the light of the gospel of Christ, and the message of the whole Bible.
- Expository Preaching preserves Biblical shape and balance. It gives the same focus and concentration that God gives in the Bible. Other people's topical preaching inevitably misses this balance. It is more difficult to see the same imbalance in our own topical preaching!
- Expository Preaching ensures that we preach on difficult topics, verses and books. I would not choose to preach from the text ‘I hate divorce' unless forced to do so by a sermon series on Malachi. I would not choose to preach on Romans 9-11, but preaching my way right through Romans forces me to do so. Lectionaries are no help, because modern lectionaries seem to go out of their way to avoid difficult topics, even cutting poems and stories in half to avoid embarrassment. Expository Preaching will at least make us preach on the difficult parts of the Bible.
- Expository Preaching saves time in preparation and presentation. Preachers need to do a lot of work in preparing their sermons and finding the historical context, and need to convey the context of verses in which they preach in the sermon as well. If we move from text to text as we move from sermon to sermon, or if we move from text to text within sermons, we will be less and less inclined to give the context of those texts and more and more inclined to take them out of context. [Of course ‘the text' is actually the whole book: only preachers think of 'the text' as a short extract!]
- Expository Preaching provides a good model of exegesis. We ought to preach and teach the Bible in a way in which we hope people will read it. People should pick up good models of using the Scripture from us. We do not want to encourage people to flip through the Bible, picking out verses that look encouraging or inviting. If we want people to read the Bible as it is written, that's the way we should preach it.
- In Expository Preaching each sermon forms part of a divine sequence. The sequence is that of the writer of the book of the Bible. Following this sequence means that our teaching and their learning is cumulative as each sermon prepares the way for the next, and each sermon summarises the message of the last and shows its sequence in biblical thought.
- Expository Preaching makes sense! Even the most convinced post-modernists among us still read books from beginning to end. This is because it's a remarkably sensible way of reading a book. Why would we adopt a different model in our reading and teaching of the Scriptures?
- Expository Preaching teaches people the Bible. Its assumption is that the Bible is relevant and effective as it comes from the mouth of God. It assumes that the information in the Bible is important for us; that these things were ‘written for our learning'.
- Expository Preaching provides an accessible, useable and safe model of Bible teaching and preaching. If one of our tasks is to encourage lay people in ministry, then the best thing to do is to provide them with a model of teaching which they can use at any level. It is not good to encourage people to flip through the Bible, taking their favourite verses out of context. It is a good work to show the people a model of Bible teaching that they can use to their benefit and the benefit of those who learn from them.
- Expository Preaching helps people to avoid repeating their ten favourite themes. Every preacher has ten sermons. The difficulty comes for the preacher and the congregation when they are repeated for the tenth time. Of course, no method can stop the determined preacher from mounting a hobby horse and riding it to death!
- Expository Preaching follows God's syllabus for us. One helpful way of viewing the Bible is to see it as God's syllabus. In it God lays out the way of salvation and what human beings need to learn in order to turn to Jesus Christ in faith and obedience. The Bible is the syllabus that God has provided - why would we replace it with another of our own invention?
One of the Homilies on the reading and knowledge of Scripture includes the following memorable words "let us reverently hear and read Holy Scriptures which is the food of the soul. Let us diligently search for the well of life in the books of the New and Old Testament and not run to the stinking puddles of men's traditions, devised by man's imagination."
Why is it that evangelicals are so enthusiastic in theory about the centrality and importance of the Scriptures, but have in many places given up on the serious educational task of teaching them to their people and of using them in evangelism?
Part two: five completely effective ways to avoid boredom in expository preaching
In part one I wrote of Fifteen Incontrovertible Arguments in Favour of Expository Preaching. Those who oppose Expository Preaching often do so because they think it must breed boredom. And those who practise Expository Preaching sometimes intentionally or unintentionally impose boredom on their hearers, perhaps as a kind of spiritual discipline! In my chapter in the book The Anglican Evangelical Crisis (ed. by Melvin Tinker, Christian Focus Publications, 1995), I wrote an appeal for ‘passionately applied expository Biblical Preaching', and in this article I want to show five ways to avoid boredom in Expository Preaching. We can be Expository in theological method without being rigidly and predictably expository in style.
1.Be grabbed by the excitement, wonderful privilege, and awesome duty of speaking God's words to his people and his world!
God has spoken, and our task is to summon people to hear the very words of God. In teaching through the Bible, we can follow God's syllabus for the education of the human race. As we explain what the Bible says, we explain what God has said. As we bring the message of the Bible in the words of the Bible with the purpose of the Bible, God's voice is heard, God rules his people, and God calls humans to faith and obedience.
It is a sign of Liberal Theology to set aside what God has said in order to set the agenda and content of the sermon by the issues that we humans want to raise.
It is a sign of Roman Catholic theology to give too much room to human traditions. I am amazed when Evangelicals follow these theological methods in practice in their preaching, when they set aside as too difficult or irrelevant what God is saying in his words of Scripture, or preach about Evangelical traditions of the Christian life or church practice.
It seems bizarre to assert the authority, relevance, and sufficiency of Scripture, and then not put it into practice in their preaching.
We must be aware of contemporary social analysis, community needs, human issues, and what seekers after God are looking for, but while this forms the context of our preaching, and shapes our application, it must not create the agenda. It is God's right to address us, and we must listen to his words.
Kevin Vanhoozer in his book Is there a meaning in this text? (Apollos 1998) has argued for the moral imperative in allowing the human author of a book to say what he or she wants to say, without being ignored by those who intend to be readers. The same moral imperative applies to our treatment of God, the author of scripture (as it also applies to our treatment of the human authors of Scripture). We preachers must practise and model to our people the priority of letting God speak in the method and way that he has chosen, in the words of Scripture. Preaching through the books of the Bible, verse by verse, chapter by chapter, respects and reflects God's authorship. God did not give us a book of quotable quotes, nor a dictionary of useful texts, nor an anthology of inspiring ideas. When God caused the Scriptures to be written the medium that he used was that of books of the Bible. If that was good enough for the author it should be good enough for the preacher.
2.Release the eloquence of the text! Let the text speak: let God speak!
It is one of the weaknesses of our tradition of Expository Preaching that it is so formed by the distancing and analytical style of commentaries.
It helps to ask the question ‘What is this text trying to do?' or perhaps even better ‘What is God doing in this text?' not just ‘What does this text mean?'.
It also helps to think of words as speech-acts, and of the Bible as ‘God's mighty speech-acts' (see Kevin Vanhoozer in P. Satterthwaite and D. Wright eds. A Pathway into the Holy Scripture, Eerdmans 1994). We can then ask the question ‘What is the intended result of these speech-acts?'
Let me give an example from a sermon series, where I am preaching through Romans 12-16, having already preached through Romans 1-8 and 9-11.
One excellent commentary gives the following analysis of Romans 12:
1-2 Our relationship to God
3-8 Our relationship to ourselves
9-16 Our relationship to one another
17-21 Our relationship to our enemies.
This helps us to understand what the text is about, but not what the text is doing, or the response that Paul wanted in his readers and hearers. It is good and necessary analysis [What is the text about?], but not so helpful for the next step towards the sermon [What does God want the hearers of the text and sermon to do?].
Here are my sermon titles:
1-2 Present your bodies!
1-2 Renew your minds!
3-8 Join the body!
3-8 Do your ministry!
9-21 Let love be genuine!
The sermon should more beyond information and education to edification. It must be act of ministry, discipling the body of Christ as intentionally as we disciple individuals within the body of Christ.
We must not muffle the text by remote analysis. Clear analysis is a necessary part of the preparation, but should not govern the presentation.
But we should use our analysis to show the logic or sequence of the text, and thus be able to avoid that familiar phrase ‘And now we look at verse 10'!'
The well prepared preacher will be able to speak two languages, the language of the Bible and the language of the people. Bringing these two together will help the people to hear the text speak.
To release the eloquence of the text is to let the text speak, to let it do what it wants to do, to let God say what he wants to say through the text.
3. Express the particularity of the text!
We must resist the temptation to take texts out of context, to make them timeless truths. The excitement of the Bible is found in its historical particularity, its gradual revelation, its Biblical Theology, its salvation history, its move from promise to fulfilment, from Christ promised to Christ revealed.
Its creative tension is found in the fact that it never sinks to the level of ‘The Christian Life', or ‘Five hints for happy families', or ‘Six clues for a successful church.' It does not reduce Christianity to a formula. Formulas are useful for new Christians, but do not bring about mature Christians or mature churches, for formulas always reduce the Bible's message.
We must avoid our hobby-horses, and avoid what we always say when we see the word ‘faith' or ‘Lord' or ‘church' or ‘gift' or ‘Spirit? We must search the text to find what it is saying in particular.
The key is what we leave out in order for this text to speak with clarity and particularity.
It is only Expository Preaching which will in the long term do justice to the text in its context, and so only this way of preaching will communicate the exciting particularity of the text.
Generality is boring: particularity is exciting!
4. Employ as much variety as possible!
Here is a table which can help us to employ as much variety as possible, while continuing to expound the Scriptures as God caused them to be written, that is, in books.
Of course the choices we make will largely be determined by what the text is saying, but there is still plenty of scope for variety. The true artist is the one who can use a given form, but use it creatively.
We should also note that different genres of Biblical material call for different kinds of expository styles. The verse-by-verse approach which can work well in Paul's letters is not the best method for the book of Job! And for variety's sake we should sometimes do Paul's letters in big chunks, so the people can see the big argument, and not get lost in the detail. Predicability is deadly: variety is fascinating.
5. Release the passions of the text!
We should release the passions of the text, as the Bible calls us to faith. Here are some relevant New Testament words:
‘call, denounce, warn, rebuke, command, encourage, appeal, urge, debate, contend, persuade, convince, insist, cry out, remind'
Calvin commented on the preacher's task in these words:
‘If a man do no more than expound Holy Scripture it slips away, and we be not touched to the quick. Therefore if teaching be not helped with exhortations it is cold and pierces not our hearts.' ‘we add a vehemency to the end that the doctrine may touch their hearts to the quick, and that they not only know what is good but be moved to follow it' (Sermons on Timothy and Titus, reprinted by Banner of Truth, 1983).
We should be passionate because God is passionate; Jesus is passionate; the Holy Spirit is passionate; and because Scripture is passionate.
We can subdue the passions of the text in these ways:
- merely lecture, preach, or teach in an academic mode
- never apply
- never exhort
- never refer to yourself
- have so much to say that there is no time to make best use of it
- have too little to say, and so repeat it endlessly
- preach timeless truths
- use clues to passion which do not communicate to your congregation
- get tired doing other things so not have enough energy to prepare or preach with passion
We can release the passions of the text in these ways:
- discover and communicate the passion of the text
- know and communicate with clarity the message of the text
- increasing the contrasts in the text
- making the most of the illustrative language of the text
- asking not only ‘what does the text mean?' but also ‘what is the text trying to do?' or ‘what is God trying to do through this text?'
- having a dramatic shape to the sermon
- using key words in the text to dramatic effect
- pauses and questions
- relevant application
- use the Bible as we are instructed, to ‘convince, rebuke, encourage' (2 Timothy 4: 2)
God is not boring. His words are not boring. We must work hard so that we do not make his words boring!
- 1 Corinthians
- 1 John
- 1 Samuel
- 1 Timothy
- 2 John
- 2 Kings
- 2 Samuel
- 3 John
- Biblical Theology
- New Testament
- Old Testament
- Old Testament Theology
- Song of Songs
- Wisdom Literature