Exposition or Imposition?

How Gospel-Centered Preaching Can Go Wrong

Together for the Gospel

The title that I was assigned for this message was “Preaching the Gospel as Expounding the Whole Bible.” Here’s the way I’m interpreting that title: It assumes that we should, in our preaching as pastors, “expound the whole Bible.” That’s a good assumption. “All Scripture is . . . profitable,” Paul said (2 Timothy 3:16). And then three verses later, in the natural flow of his thought, he said, “Preach the word!” (2 Timothy 4:2). So I take “the word” in this context to mean nothing less than the inspired word: “all Scripture.” All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable (2 Timothy 3:16). Preach it. Herald it. Announce it. Declare it. Expound the whole Bible.

But when my title says, “Expounding the Whole Bible,” it does not mean, “Expound every verse in the Bible.” Nobody can do that in a lifetime. Not if you take the word expound with any seriousness. Instead it means: in your forty or fifty years of exposition, crisscross the whole Bible, taking texts from anywhere and everywhere, as the Spirit leads, and the times demand, and your people need. Because it’s all inspired, and it’s all profitable. The exposition of the whole Bible will profit our people a hundred times more than our clever or creative reflections on the state of religion or culture or politics.

All flesh is like grass
    and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers, and the flower falls,
    but the word of the Lord remains forever. (1 Peter 1:24–25)

Your people need you to soar in worshipful explanations of what Bible passages mean. Explanation and exultation is what they need from you. Truth and passion. Wisdom and worship. Doctrine and delight. From every text anywhere in the Bible. So, that’s what I take the second half of my title to mean: “Expounding the Whole Bible.”

“Every heaven-bound breath that a believer takes was bought by the blood of Christ.”

The first half of the title says “Preaching the Gospel,” and the two halves are connected by “as”: “Preaching the Gospel as Expounding the Whole Bible.” Which, I assume, means: As you expound every text from anywhere in the Bible, you should, in that exposition, be preaching the gospel. I think that’s what they wanted me to talk about when they assigned me this title. Talk to us about how, in expounding the whole Bible, we are to preach the gospel.

Preach for Maturity and Stability

But I have a problem with that assignment. I don’t think that way about preaching as a pastor in the context of weekly worship among the people of God. I stood in this pulpit for 33 years and preached (actually 22 years, since this building was built in 1991). But my mindset as I prepared, and as I stepped into this pulpit, was not first and foremost: How can I preach the gospel from this text? That was not my controlling thought in preparation or delivery.

My controlling thought was, and is: What do the words and phrases and clauses and sentences and flow of thought mean in this text? Or to be more precise, my controlling thought was: What reality did this inspired writer intend to communicate to his readers, through the words and phrases and clauses and sentences and flow of thought in this text? What reality did this inspired author intend for me to see, through his use of words? And how did he intend for me to think about that reality, and feel about it, and apply it to my life and the lives of my people and the world? My first and controlling thought is not: How can I preach the gospel from this text? Rather, I am driven by the question: How can I see what this author sees? What glimpses of divine and human reality might he have for me, if I linger and look and look and look at what he actually said, with earnest prayer for God’s help, and with heartfelt renunciation of all my sin that would distort my sight?

Then I want to come to my people week after week and in preaching show them what amazing things I have seen, and point them to the very words and phrases and clauses where I saw the glory. I want the people to see that what I saw is really there. That’s what these particular words actually mean — what they actually reveal about God and his ways and his will. I think it’s really important for the sake of the functional (not just theoretical) authority of Scripture that pastors show their people the very words from which they are getting their ideas. But what I’ve seen for decades now is that there is a kind of preaching that floats just above the text and does not land often enough for the people to see that what the preacher is saying is really what the words of the text actually mean.

I don’t think the controlling question How can I preach the gospel from this text? has, over the last forty years, produced the kind of preaching that makes for strong, Bible-saturated, doctrinally rich, mature, stable, countercultural churches with a passion for radical obedience to God’s word.

Build Your Sermon on the Cross

So, I want to offer an alternative to those who think that “preaching Christ” or “preaching the gospel from every text” means dealing in generalities about what the text teaches, hovering just above the text, seldom explaining the very words and phrases, and then moving to the real concern by making the crescendo of every sermon a rehearsal of the atonement, and the forgiveness of sins, so that everyone can walk out relieved.

  • I think that kind of preaching tends to dull the expectations of the people because of how predictable the homiletical path becomes.

  • I think it tends to treat the actual words and phrases and logic of the text as having minor significance by giving the impression they need not be treated with care and depth, but only as preparations for the Christ-crucified crescendo.

  • I think it tends to train people in bad habits of how to read their Bibles, by diminishing the rigor and earnestness with which they meditate on the very words of Scripture.

  • I think it tends to weaken the seriousness of practical biblical imperatives on how to live the Christian life by inserting the substitutionary atonement at critical moments when the emphasis should be falling on the urgency of obedience, because that’s the urgency of the text.

“Jesus died to purchase the miracle of obedience to texts.”

So, I want to commend to you an alternative to making every text a pathway to the gospel, or to having the driving question of sermon preparation be How can I preach the gospel from this text? I want to wave a yellow flag at the motto, “Take your text and make a beeline to the cross.” That is often attributed to Spurgeon. No Spurgeon scholars I’m aware of can verify that. But it doesn’t matter. That’s not the point.

The point is this: Instead of taking your text and making a beeline to the cross, I think you should take the cross and make a beeline to your text. Instead of building your sermon toward the cross, I think you should build your sermon on the cross. Instead of preaching biblical imperatives as pointers to Christ’s perfection and to imputed righteousness, I think we should preach imputed righteousness as the power to obey biblical imperatives. Or to put it another way:

Standing on the power and promises bought for God’s elect by the blood of Jesus, wrestle with the words of your text until you see the reality that is really there in those words, and then show your people what you’ve seen, and how you see it, and offer that reality to them as a blood-bought gift, urging them, with all your might, to see it, and understand it, and embrace it, and be glad in it, and obey it, and share it. Let the reality in the text be the crescendo of the sermon.

Sweeping Realities Behind Every Scripture

So, how did I come to that conclusion? Let me try to show you from Scripture why I think this way.

Let’s start here: When I gave my full attention and vigorous effort to try to see the reality a biblical author wanted me to see, through the actual words of his text, I realized that I could not see the reality the way he did, and the way he wanted me to, without knowing more of what was in the author’s mind than he could put in this limited text.

For example, when Paul says to “pursue hospitality” (Romans 12:13 NET), I may have an idea of what “hospitality” is and what “pursue” involves. But there are a dozen ways I could pursue hospitality that are defective, and that Paul would disapprove of.

  • I could pursue hospitality for fear of what others would think if I don’t.
  • I could pursue it in the hope that people would invite me back.
  • I could pursue it legalistically to try to earn my right standing with God.
  • And so on.

Paul would consider every one of those ways of pursuing hospitality as not grasping the reality he is calling for in Romans 12:13. But you can only know that from things Paul has said elsewhere — things about the cross, about grace, about the power of the Holy Spirit, about faith, about sin, about the glory of God. The reality that Paul has in his mind for us to know and embrace and obey, when he says, “Pursue hospitality,” is more than he can put into two words.

So then I asked, “What aspects of Paul’s mental world — Paul’s encompassing reality — must I see so that I will not mishandle what he says in his particular sentences in any given text? So, I posed the question this way: Are there truths, or realities, in an author’s worldview that are so pervasive, so all-encompassing, that they are relevant to everything he says — that is, necessary for me to know in order to rightly handle everything he says? In other words, are there truths, realities that, if they are ignored, will always cause us to mishandle what particular sentences mean? Are there such sweeping realities in an author’s mind that, if we ignore them, we will not be able to respond to particular texts the way he intends?

My answer is: Yes, there are at least three. I’ll mention two of them in passing and then focus on the one that relates directly to this message, and whether we should aim to preach the gospel from every text, and whether we should take a text and make a beeline to the cross.

1. All to God’s Glory

First, when Paul says, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31), backed up by dozens of biblical passages that show God intends for everything to be done for his glory, I infer that every text Paul wrote — indeed all the biblical writers wrote — were written ultimately to the end that God would be seen and savored and shown as glorious. That is one of the pervasive truths or realities in Paul’s mind without which no text will be rightly handled, according to Paul’s intention.

“Every transforming glimpse of God’s glory in every sermon is blood-bought.”

Paul’s aim in every text always includes the intention that every response we have to this text — all understanding or thought or feeling or faith or action — should be with the aim of glorifying God. But to support that and explain that is another message. That’s the first, all-encompassing truth in Paul’s mind needed to rightly handle his particular texts.

2. Rule of Faith

The second is this: Paul says in Romans 14:23, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin,” and Hebrews 11:6 says, “Without faith it is impossible to please [God].” I infer that this is one of those pervasive truths — all-encompassing realities — for Paul and the author of Hebrews, indeed, I would argue, for all the biblical authors. Which means then that, if we are going to handle any biblical text in a way that accords with the author’s overall intention, and which pleases God and is not sin, we must bring that text rightly into relation to faith. That, too, is another message.

3. Christ and Him Crucified

The third sweeping truth in the mind of Paul that affects how all his texts (and perhaps all texts) are handled relates directly to the issue at hand: Should we aim to preach the gospel from every text? So, let’s ask: Does Paul say anything about the death of Christ — about Christ’s atonement for sin — in relation to everything he preaches and writes? Yes, he does. For example, he says in 1 Corinthians 2:1–2,

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

And in Galatians 6:14 he says,

Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So, taken at face value, these two passages say,

  1. Paul doesn’t preach anything (he says, “I don’t ‘know’ anything”) except “Jesus Christ and him crucified,” and
  2. Paul doesn’t boast in anything except “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Boast in the Basis

What does that mean? And what would it mean for our preaching? One might try to say, “Well, those statements are not general statements about all Paul’s preaching or writing; they only relate to the peculiar situation in Corinth and Galatia.” There are two main problems with that.

First, when you read 1 Corinthians, what you see is that even in the Corinthian situation, Paul did “know” or talk about or preach and write about other things besides “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” In 1 Corinthians 2:2 he says, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Then he proceeds to give instructions about church divisions (1 Corinthians 1:10–17; 3:1–4), church discipline (1 Corinthians 5:1–5), lawsuits (1 Corinthians 6:1–11), sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 6:12–20), marriage and singleness (1 Corinthians 7), food offered to idols (1 Corinthians 8:1–6), head coverings (1 Corinthians 11:1–16), spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12–14), and more.

And the second problem with limiting these statements to special situations, is that Galatians 6:14 simply isn’t worded that way. When Paul said, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he was speaking about fundamental conviction, not a situational application. We can see this in the way he grounded the statement in the next verse: “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Galatians 6:15). This is not situationally limited. And yet, Paul uses that same word for “boast” (kauchasthai) elsewhere to say,

  • “We boast in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2).
  • “We boast in our tribulations” (Romans 5:3).
  • “Most gladly will I boast about my weaknesses” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
  • “Who is our hope or joy or crown of boasting? Is it not even you?” (1 Thessalonians 2:19).

So, here’s what we have. In 1 Corinthians 2:2, Paul says he intends “to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Then he speaks in detail about eight other issues. And in Galatians 6:14 he says that he does not boast “except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” But elsewhere he boasts in the glory of God, tribulations, weaknesses, and fellow believers.

What, then, does he mean when he says, “I only know Christ crucified; I only boast in the cross”? I think he means this: “In everything else I know and preach, I know it and I preach it on the basis of the crucified one — on the foundation of the crucified one. And everything else in which I boast, I boast on the basis of the cross — on the foundation of the cross.” The application to us for our preaching would be this: every biblical topic, every text that we take up and worshipfully explain and offer to our people for their profit, is based on the cross — the crucified one.

Every Benefit Blood-Bought

What’s the basis for saying that? The basis is Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” This is one of the most important verses in the Bible, both for living and for preaching. This is the glorious link between the Father’s sacrifice of Jesus and “all things” that come to God’s people.

The logic is this: If God did the hardest thing — not sparing his own Son — but gave him for us, then he will not fail to do the easier thing — namely, give us all things.

What does “all things” include? It’s not prosperity preaching. We know that, because four verses later when Paul is listing the “all things,” they include “we are being killed all the day long,” but in this we are not separated from his love, but are more than conquerors (Romans 8:36–37). So, the meaning of Romans 8:32 is this: For God’s elect — the predestined, the called, the justified (Romans 8:30) — every good thing — and every bad thing that God turns for good — was secured for us by the cross of Christ. Every heaven-bound breath that a believer takes was bought by the blood of Christ. John Flavel, the old British Puritan, called “the sweet dropper,” says of Romans 8:32,

Surely if [God] would not spare his own Son one stroke, one tear, one groan, one sigh, one circumstance of misery, it can never be imagined that ever he should, after this, deny or withhold from his people, for whose sakes all this was suffered, any mercies, any comforts, any privilege, spiritual or temporal, which is good for them.

That’s right! And here’s the implication for preaching: There simply can be no benefits, offered to us as God’s dear children, apart from the cross of Christ. But every sermon offers some benefit to God’s children. Every text, Paul says, is “profitable” (2 Timothy 3:16) — beneficial for God’s people. And the only way that anything finally “profitable” or beneficial can come to fallen, sinful, hell-deserving Christians is because of the cross. Therefore, every profit, every benefit, every blessing, every gift, every promise, every gracious warning, every precious teaching, every solid doctrine, and every transforming glimpse of God’s glory in every sermon is blood-bought. Therefore, the cross is the foundation — the basis — of every biblical sermon.

Jesus died to purchase the miracle of obedience to texts. He paid his blood to purchase faithful exposition of texts. He went to the cross to turn texts into the Christ-exalting beauty of holiness. Anything that minimizes that obedience, or that exposition, or that holiness, in the name of preaching the gospel from every text, is contrary to the will of God.

Exposition, or Imposition?

Consider a closing example. Take 1 Peter 4:7–9:

The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.

What should be your driving question as you come to this text? Will you make a few general comments about self-control and sober-mindedness, and loving others and showing hospitality without grumbling, hovering just above the text so that you never get into the nitty-gritty of what is self-control? I thought we were supposed to be controlled by the Holy Spirit, not self! And why is sober-mindedness so essential to prayer, and what might endless entertainment today do to that? And how exactly does my love cover the sins of other people? And if it covers them, should they be rebuked, or would that be uncovering? And how — please, help me pastor — can I get rid of my grumbling spirit?

And then passing over all those time-consuming, nitty-gritty, tough, exegetical, practical questions, you move with a creative flare to preach Christ from this text: “Behold Christ was the perfect incarnation of self-control on the way to Calvary. Christ was sober unto prayer in Gethsemane, even to the sweating of blood. Christ, by his love, covered sins in an unparalleled way. Christ with arms outstretched on Calvary offered a cosmic hospitality, and not a word of grumbling came from his lips. Behold in this text Jesus Christ and the gospel.”

That’s not exposition; that’s imposition. That’s not a declaration of God’s word; it’s a diminishing — perhaps even a silencing — of God’s word. That’s not a faithful dealing with the beauty of holiness in this text; it’s a distraction from the very beauty Jesus died to make possible. Yes, it is possible to inadvertently use Jesus to obscure what Jesus died to obtain.

He died so that we would make a beeline from the cross to the text — that we would spend hours and hours wrestling with all the questions and perplexities and sacrifices and beauties of self-control and sober-mindedness and prayer and love and the covering of sin and the sweetness and courage of hospitality and the miracle of a life free from grumbling. He died so that he would come up under like a mighty wave, carrying the beauties of all that obedience into the world for the glory of his name.

“Instead of taking your text and making a beeline to the cross, take the cross and make a beeline to your text.”

What did Peter himself say in this same letter? “[Christ] himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). Christ bore our sins for the sake of self-control and sober-mindedness and prayer and our love and our covering of others’ sins and our hospitality and our freedom from grumbling. Peter says God is making a beeline from the cross to the text — from the precious blood to the purchased obedience, from the gospel to the beauty of the bride. Don’t tell your people that the beauty of the flower of righteousness is really the bloody root; that’s not what flowers are for.

Behold All the Beauty

So, where do we stand now in regard to the title of this message, “Preaching the Gospel as Expounding the Whole Bible”? Or the implicit question: How do I preach the gospel from every text? Or the catchy form of the question: How can I make a beeline from every text to the cross?

My response is: Don’t think that way. Don’t make that your controlling question as you come to the text and prepare your message. Instead, rivet the attention of your whole soul on the words and phrases and clauses and sentences and connections in your text, and push on them and pull on them and squeeze them until you have wrung from them all the beauty that they contain. And then show your people what you have seen, and how you saw it, and how precious it must be that Christ would die to make his people beautiful like this.