The Primacy of Expository Preaching, Part 1

Desiring God 1995 Conference for Pastors

The Primacy of Expository Preaching

It is an honor and a pleasure for me to be here this evening. My primary regret is that my mandate is to talk about preaching and not to preach, because at heart I’m slightly envious of John Armstrong’s task since he will be expounding the Word. I will break aside from my planned remarks here and there to give some brief biblical meditations, especially tomorrow and the next day, but perhaps by thinking through what biblical expository preaching is we may stir one another on to better facility with this task.

The Decline of Preaching in the West

There is widespread recognition today that something has gone wrong with Western preaching. I don’t simply mean there are the regular whiners and moaners or there are simply the cynics and the critics. There is an increasing number of people in the church who recognize the aridity, the profound spiritual emptiness bound up in mere formalism on the one hand or exciting showmanship on the other and want something better.

It must be pointed out that the low regard for preaching that is still endemic to most of our circles has not always been the rule in the church of Christ. P.T. Forsyth, at the turn of the century, wrote, “It is, perhaps, an overbold beginning, but I will venture to say that with its preaching Christianity stands or falls” (Positive Preaching and Modern Mind, 3).

In the opening pages of his two-volume A History of Preaching, Dargan writes:

Decline of spiritual life and activity in the churches is commonly accompanied by a lifeless, formal, unfruitful preaching, and this partly as cause, partly as effect. On the other hand, the great revivals of Christian history can most usually be traced to the work of the pulpit, and in their progress they have developed and rendered possible a high order of preaching. (13)

In other words, preaching can stimulate revival under God and benefit from it. Want of biblical preaching is an announcement of death and is, in fact, also killed by lifelessness.

It may be worthwhile before I try defining preaching, and especially expository preaching tonight, to summarize some of the reasons why preaching is in such decline amongst us, and they are many.

1. The Large-Scale Loss of Spiritual Vitality in the Western Church

We are not going to find many preachers anointed by God to proclaim the whole counsel of God if we do not find many preachers given to prayer. We are not going to find many preachers given to proclaiming the whole counsel of God with authority if deep down they are constantly attracted by lust. This cause-and-effect relationship is astonishingly tight.

Packer says in one of his essays — it is almost too burning an indictment to read — “I suspect the widespread perplexity today as to the relevance of the New Testament gospel should be seen as God’s judgment on two generations of inadequate preaching by inadequate preachers rather than to anything else.” I don’t have the courage to say that, quite frankly. I’m glad Packer does.

2. Post-Enlightenment Rush Toward Secularism

We live in a time of post-Enlightenment rush toward secularism. We do have to reckon with the times in which we live. Secularism (the process of secularization) is not understood as that process which abolishes religion or eliminates religion. It is understood, rather, as that process which squeezes religion to the periphery of life so you can be ever so religious, it just doesn’t matter.

People love religion in small doses so long as it’s not controlling. Thus, part of the preacher’s task, unlike a hundred years ago, is to explain why what he is saying is of shattering importance. That was the given a hundred years ago. It is everywhere assumed not to be the case today. Even amongst people who creedally acknowledge it is important, in fact, in the heart of hearts it just isn’t.

3. Diminished Confidence in the Scriptures and the Gospel

There is, partly in consequence of the last point and partly owing to massive skepticism in many theological faculties, a terrible loss of confidence in the gospel and in the Scriptures amongst inerrantists. I’m not dealing now with outsiders; I’m talking about amongst Bible-believing inerrantists.

So as a result today, deep down we have a form of the gospel very often in which we believe the aim of the exercise is to get people to just sort of tip over and get in. Then we can start the life-changing business with therapies and counseling and small groups and so on, but the real life-changing business is not bound up with the gospel. The gospel sort of tips them in some sort of forensic fashion, and then the real business of life transformation starts after that. There is a loss of confidence in the gospel itself, and in my view, this is one of the most depressing things in a great deal of Western evangelicalism.

4. Self-Fulfilling Low Expectations

These low expectations become self-fulfilling. A wretched cycle is engendered. There are very few first-class models around to provide young preachers with goals and standards and illustrations as to how to preach the Bible. I sometimes tell my students at Trinity that if, God forbid, I were pope I would move the best preachers in the nation around schools like Trinity and Bethel and Gordon-Conwell and so on for this simple reason: it would provide models for the next generation of preachers.

Do you see? There are some things in preaching that are better caught than taught. Many of you men are struggling in very difficult, confined circumstances, and others of you have been faithful in the ministry of the Word for years and years and years. My father was in that kind of pattern. I grew up in French Canada in the lean years where a big church had thirty people. He didn’t begin to see substantial fruit until he was 61. I know as the son of the manse something of the travails of preaching in hard times, but I am sure that all of us, as preachers, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, are stimulated and stirred and excited to do better when we hear the Word well-proclaimed. Do we not? And when we hear endless bad preaching we sort of sink to a certain kind of lethargic mediocrity.

Thus, part of the problem is, instead of raising standards stage by stage by a kind of self-fulfilling cycle we are lowering them by a kind of self-fulfilling cycle. In the last century, it was common in England for a hearer at the end of a sermon to ask another hearer how he or she got on under the Word. Nowadays we ask how they enjoyed the service or how the preacher got on. There is a different worldview that is at stake.

5. Pluralism and Relativism

The great gods of our age are pluralism and relativism, two immensely despotic gods who reign with terrible tyranny. In consequence, heresy, like treason, has been democratized. Let me explain. The categories I draw from a book by Eric Werner, Le Système de la Trahison. The thesis of Werner is that when a state is neither an empire nor a nation the notion of treason dissipates.

If you are part of a glorious empire like the British Empire or the Roman Empire, treason against the empire is considered awful. If you are a nation (a tightly defined group controlled by language, unity, heritage, worldview, and perspective) like Japan, then treason against the state becomes awful, but when you become a state like America, with all of our diversity and our pluralism and our individualism and our privatization and so on, it is very difficult to be shocked anymore by treason.

So when you have somebody who sins against the secrets of the CIA or is a spy in a Moscow embassy we may observe it with interest in the press, but nobody is shocked, nobody is scandalized. Heresy has been democratized. Do you see?

In the same way, these cultural impacts on the church mean heresy itself — not just treason, but heresy — has been democratized. Today the powers of postmodernity are so strong the only heresy left, for the first time in the history of the church so far as I can see, is the view that there is such a thing as heresy.

That is the one heretical view, and within this kind of framework, to preach an unflinching truth, to claim apart from this truth men and woman are eternally lost, makes you not only sound nineteenth century and bigoted but irrelevant, hopelessly lost in an epistemology now dead just crying out for decent burial. I will come back to those themes tomorrow.

6. Changing Roles of the Clergy

There are changing roles of the clergy. Many of our people expect us to be counselors first, administrators second, and thirdly to be preachers, and we’re supposed to do that without much study. We learned all of that at seminary, didn’t we? Sometimes we fit into this expectation by the sheer dictatorial power of the urgent.

I do not know of a single minister in a substantial size church anywhere who maintains a healthy preaching habit who does not limit his hours in the counseling room. I don’t know of one. They start saying things like, “I have so many hours per week for counseling. Once those hours are filled, apart from crisis, I don’t take anybody else on. Full stop. If I can’t refer them, I’m sorry, but there are only so many hours left, and I cannot rob two hundred people in order to try to save one.”

Somehow or other, as part of our commitment to preaching, however much counseling we do, once we have agreed to the number of hours apart from crisis, you draw a line, or else your preaching becomes flatter and flatter and staler and staler, and the pressure of the immediate gradually squeezes out the importance of the transcendental.

7. Expectation of Entertainment and Puffy Professionalism

The role of television and other mass media has engendered an expectation of entertainment, of puffy professionalism. I would love to say much more about that, but the patterns of rhetoric have changed as well.

When you have the most believable figure being a Peter Jennings, or a Walter Cronkite in a previous generation, a talking head that just comes at you without a great deal of nuance but with a certain kind of professional gloss, and then you see somebody on Sunday morning getting all excited about something and pounding a pulpit and things like this, it just, for many people, sounds artificial. It sounds like another world.

8. Assuming the Gospel

There are the sheer problems of broken lives, a breaking culture that leads many sincere Christians to pursue single issues.

Paul Hiebert, on the missions faculty at Trinity, analyzes his own Mennonite Brethren heritage this way. He would acknowledge it is a caricature, but it’s still a useful caricature.

He says the first generation of Mennonites believed the gospel and thought there were certain social entailments. Whether you agree with his analysis or not is irrelevant. They believed the gospel and thought there were certain social entailments. The next generation assumed the gospel and identified with the entailments. The third generation denied the gospel and all that were left were the entailments.

Now, there is a great deal of evangelicalism which assumes the gospel and majors on the entailments or one or two of them, so for them the critical issue of the hour is one of the following: worship style, abortion, homeschooling, counseling (for or against), women’s ordination (for or against), Willow Creek or the VCM (for or against). I don’t really care what the issue is. But at the end of the day, these single-issue people become so controlling that what is lost is this heavy emphasis on what is central.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, when we merely assume the gospel we’re only one generation away from denying it. The gospel is never something to be assumed. It is never something to be mastered so that you can then move on. It is what must master us. All of its ramifications, all of its controls, all of its thoughts, all of its lifestyles, all of its patterns, all of its morality, and all it discloses of God and of us must be thought through and rethought through and taught and applied again and again and again. Well, there are other things I could mention, but I press on.

A Preliminary Definition of Preaching

A preliminary definition of preaching. This is not yet of expository preaching. I want to come to a preliminary definition of preaching. For most of you, none of this will be new but it may be worthwhile stirring up our pure minds by way of remembrance, to coin a phrase.

Preaching — I will not try to define by looking at euaggelizomai and kēryssō. I think preaching must be defined functionally in Scripture. It is that verbal, oral communication which, at its best, embraces the following things. (You will recognize right away some of the elements in this definition come from a variety of well-known authors, to which I’ve added one or two.)

1. Its content is God’s gracious and special self-disclosure, his revelation. For us, for evangelicals, that means its content is the Bible as its focus is Jesus Christ. Its content is God’s gracious and special self-disclosure.

2. (To pick up a phrase from Phillip Brooks) it is biblical truth mediated through human personality. I shall unpack these clauses in a few moments.

3. Its immediate purpose (not its ultimate purpose) is to inform, persuade, appeal, invite response, encourage, rebuke, instruct in righteousness, and more generally to elicit so far as we are able by God’s grace an appropriate human response to the God whose revelation is the content of the preaching. I will unpack that one in a moment, too.

4. Its ultimate goal is the glory of God and the calling forth and edification of the church.

Now let me make some comments on these points to unpack them a little, and then I will turn to a defense of preaching followed by an articulation of expository preaching and a defense, so you know where I am going.

Unpacking the Definition of Preaching

Some comments, then.

First, this definition of preaching defines the nature of the preacher’s authority. Authority is integral to the notion of what preaching is. Namely, it is clear human utterance of God’s message. Its authority is bound up with the fact this is God’s message. Preaching that does not display divine authority, both in its content and its manner, is, thus, profoundly inadequate.

Second, it is not mere expository lecturing. I will say much more about that in the third session. Hence, my insistence on the immediate purpose being to inform, to rebuke, to encourage, and so on. Preaching is not an art form to be admired. The sermon is not an end in itself. It is the means to an end. Namely, to call sinners to righteousness and to edify the people of God as the immediate aim.

The ultimate goal we’ll come to in due course. That means, therefore, we must give a great deal of thought in our preaching to how to make the Word sing and sting, to wound and heal. It is never enough simply to be a faithful expounder of what texts say. Never.

Third, it is through human personality (that lovely phrase from Phillips Brooks). Murray M’Cheyne said in the last century, “A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of [a holy] God” (Andrew A. Bonar, Memoirs of M’Cheyne, 95). Do you not know often more senior men who just reflect so many donkey’s years of walking with God that it almost seems as if they have one foot in heaven, but there is about them an aura of the transcendent?

They are filled with the Spirit. To use a Puritan phrase, they preach with unction. I suggest to you the most discerning preachers can tell pretty smartly whether what they are listening to is unction or pizzazz, whether it’s personality plus or a certain kind of holiness that is altogether out of this world. I don’t know how else to refer to it.

Fourth, this definition presupposes a certain simplicity to the task. In other words, however complicated preaching is, and it does have some complex elements, there is something wonderfully simple about the job. William Perkins, in the first English book on preaching, to my knowledge, the book is titled The Art of Prophesying, defines preaching like this: “[It is] to collect the church and to accomplish the number of the elect” and “to drive wolves away from the folds of the Lord.”

It has four great principles: to read the text distinctly from canonical Scripture, to give its sense and understanding according to Scripture itself (the old Puritan principle of comparing Scripture with Scripture), to collect a few and profitable points of doctrine out of the natural sense, and to apply (if you have the gift) the doctrines to the life and manner of men in a simple and plain speech.

There’s something refreshingly simple about that, isn’t there? Our aim, finally, is not to be the most erudite scholars of the age. Our aim, finally, is to not titillate and amuse. Our aim, finally, is not to build a big church. Our aim is to take the sacred text, explain what it means, tie it to other Scriptures so people can see the whole thing a little better, and so apply it to life that it bites and heals and instructs and edifies. It’s not more complex than that. It’s refreshingly simple. Of course, it’s difficult too. I’ll come to that. But it’s very important to get our aim straight. Do you see? It is not more complicated than that.

A Preliminary Defense of Preaching

So, let me begin with a preliminary defense of preaching. There are wonderful putdowns of preaching. “A monstrous monologue by a moron to mutes.” Why should we bother with preaching at all? Let me offer some reasons.

1. Revelation Through Speech

First, the most basic act of revelation God himself takes in the Scripture, short of the incarnation, is his speech.

God is a talking God. He’s not, first and foremost, the unmoved mover or the transcendental other or the immanent “with us” one. He’s a talking God. You open up the Bible, and the first thing it says is God spoke.

And all through, when God presences himself with his people through prophets, through seers, through inscripturated Word, God discloses himself in word so much so that, when his Son comes, he is called the Word of God, almost as if John was looking for one single category that would embrace everything else of God’s self-disclosure in the Son. Shall this opening prologue of John’s Gospel, then, refer to Jesus as the Son of Man or the King of Israel? Shall he be referred to as the Messiah, as the Redeemer, the Savior of the world? All categories John likes. No.

In the beginning, God expressed himself, and his self-expression was with God, and his self-expression was God, and his self-expression became flesh. God is a talking God, and ultimately, if we are to proclaim this God to others, if we are to share this God with others, we too must talk. We must pass on this talk. We re-talk God’s talk. At the end of the day, that’s what preaching is.

2. The Scriptural Emphasis on Preaching

Second, Scripture itself, especially under the terms of the new covenant, reserves a special place for preaching.

Now, I don't have time in the hour allotted to me to go through all of these texts, but since some of you are taking notes and some of you will listen to this tape, let me give you some references to look up, and I will pause to read only two of them: Matthew 10:6–7; Mark 3:14; Mark 13:10; Luke 24:45–49; Acts 5:42; Acts 6:2–4; Acts 10:42.

Romans 10:14–17, which I shall read. Here again, I am but stirring up your pure minds by way of remembrance:

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. First Corinthians 1:17–2:5, a glorious passage which I would very much like to expound. First Corinthians 1:17: “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”

First Corinthians 9:16; Philippians 1:12–18 — meditate on that text in connection with Peter O’Brien’s commentary. Second Corinthians 2:16–17; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Timothy 4:2–5; Titus 1:3.

Brothers, meditate on these passages. Write them down, copy them out, meditate upon them, re-read them and re-read them, and hide them in your hearts so what God says about preaching will burn in your souls.

3. Preaching and Teaching in Jesus’s Ministry

In the Gospels, Jesus Christ sets out to teach and preach. In other words, if you examine the purpose clauses in Jesus’s ministry, almost without exception they are bound up with preaching and teaching. He may go somewhere and heal. Someone may interrupt him and ask for a healing, and he may actually bring about a resurrection, but when the purpose clauses are read, almost without exception they are bound up with preaching and teaching. Check for yourself. He went somewhere in order to preach again and again and again.

4. The Power of the Monologue

Preaching, precisely because it is in monologue form, has certain decided advantages even if it has its dangers and limitations.

Always the educationists are saying preaching is the weakest form of communication. You have probably been instructed endlessly in recent years how there is no impression without expression; therefore, dialogue is better, small groups are better, anything is better than preaching.

Preaching Appeals to the Heart and Mind

Well, I suggest to you that, even at the level of practical experience, that is, not to put too fine a point on it, a load of bilge. Have you ever seen the discussion group that really does go for both heart and mind? It just about can’t be done. I’ve seen one or two places where it’s almost done, but it just about can’t be done.

You either get these sentimental groups where it’s very easy to cry — I’m not against crying; I do a fair bit of it myself — but there’s no substance or you get these Bible studies that are nice academic little structures, little mini-lectures and discussions. It is very rare I have come out of a small group thinking, “Tonight the Spirit of God was powerfully manifest amongst us by his truth through his Word.”

I may have been edified, and I may have good fellowship, all of which are useful things. I’m not denying the importance of small groups in relationships in the church. Do not misunderstand me. But they cannot do what preaching at its best can do: appeal to the heart and mind simultaneously.

Preaching Amasses

Moreover, it is difficult in that kind of environment to pile up evidences. A really good preacher, whether three centuries ago or today, will bring you to a glorious theme — the evidences for the resurrection, the importance of justification in God’s thought — and bring you to point after point after point. It amasses and amasses and amasses.

You don’t do that sort of thing in inductive Bible study. You say, “What’s your opinion? What do you see in this text?” It’s a different form, and it has its place. Do not misunderstand me. But it cannot take the place of powerful preaching.

Preaching Verbally Displays Grand Themes

Moreover, it is almost useless in terms of verbally displaying a grand theme. Now I know you can end up just being a show-off in the pulpit, impressing people with the wealth and range of your vocabulary. By and large, that’s not a great problem today, but when I read Spurgeon I discover it has been known in the past, and it is doubtless a perpetual danger.

I am sure of this, however. When you read the book of Revelation and meditate on Revelation 4–5, you get a glorious picture image of the throne room of God and you are to fall down and worship, so that if you’re preaching passages like that and you do not have the power to convey the same images, there is something deficient in your preaching. Do you see?

Now a Bible study will take you through and show the structure of it and how the symbolism is lost in Jewish apocalyptic and all the rest, all of which is important, but preaching will open up panoramic vistas, the horizons of eternity!

Preaching Unveils Uncomfortable Truths

And in addition, preaching is capable of taking up that Word and holding it as a mirror to us that makes us squirm. How can you possibly say in a group of eight people around a room having an inductive Bible study, “This Word condemns the lust that is in our congregation. I have been in your homes and have seen Playboy magazine”?

I speak to university groups. I say, “I know why you won’t come to Christ. It’s because you’re sleeping with your girlfriend.” You can’t say that in a group of eight people! There is a certain power in this kind of placarded message you cannot get out of the small group. Do you see? Even though the small group has many advantages, which are not to be confused with preaching.

Preaching Has a Certain Intensity and Integration

Moreover, it can have a certain intensity to it, truth through human personality. There is capability here amongst mature and gifted preachers of achieving a certain kind of mature integration, and even the weaknesses of preaching can, in my view, largely be overcome insofar as the old caricature is true. That is, “no impression without expression.”

There are several things that can be done to overcome it: Pastoral follow-up. Homes taught how to handle sermons. In the era after Whitefield and Wesley, the heads of homes almost always, if they were godly at all, over lunch would go over the main points of the sermon and talk about them and what they were useful for. Now we rush home to make sure we get to the Super Bowl in time, or whatever. No, no, no, no. There are ways of teaching godly uses of sermons.

Isn’t that why some of you put out sermon outlines in your bulletins? That may or may not be a good device. It depends a bit on you and it depends on your congregation. But then you need to teach people how to use them, to take them home and pray over the primary points that apply to their lives and their own families, and then on prayer meeting night to bring them up again and review the material again. There are ways of getting integration into lives and families.

Preaching Can Be Dialogical

Moreover, there is a dialogical approach found in Scripture that John Stott makes much of in his book on preaching. The kind of back and forth kind of thing you find in Malachi. Do you see? Malachi 1:2; Malachi 1:12; and Malachi 2:17 where Malachi declares, in the name of God, “I have loved you, but you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’ ” Or, “Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me.” “How have we robbed God?”

Do you see? There is a dialogical approach even though it’s a monologue. The other people aren’t actually saying that in the manuscript. Malachi is writing that down. That was reflecting the kind of preaching he did.

In other words, preaching itself with a little imagination can be dialogical and catch people into it. Do you see? Isn’t that what Paul does? “Shall we sin, then, that grace may abound? God forbid, whose damnation is just.” It’s dialogical. The scholars may call it a diatribe if it makes them feel better, but it’s still a dialogue.

5. Preaching Mediates Jesus Christ to Us

Above all, preaching brings God down to men and women. It mediates Jesus Christ to human beings.

God Speaks His Presence

Do you see? If God in Scripture, if God according to Scripture, has repeatedly disclosed himself to human beings through his Word — God speaks to Moses at the burning bush. He speaks. Yes, there’s thunder and lightning at the giving of the Law, but the thunder and lightning by themselves don’t mean much apart from the giving of the Law. He speaks and defines the terms of the tabernacle. He speaks through Jeremiah, and we hear about the new covenant. He speaks through Isaiah, and we understand the suffering servant. He speaks. He speaks. He talks. He talks. And as he comes and speaks and talks he presences himself with us.

How, then, does God presence himself with us today? There is a sense in which preaching at its best, so help us God, when it is anointed by the Spirit of God is the critical means by which God presences himself with us again. Let me overstate it. It is a revelatory act. It is not revelatory in exactly the same sense that the Bible is revelatory. It is not revelatory in the same sense that we find out something new when God speaks about it for the first time.

It is revelatory in the sense that it is not simply to be the passing on of information. It is God repeating the words again. The words God used to confront other people with his presence in the past he now uses again to confront men and women afresh. That’s a self-disclosing act. In that sense, preaching is never merely a communication act; it is a revelatory act. That is what gives it its high seriousness.

Preaching Is Declaration, Not Endless Dialogue

That is why the words primarily bound up with preaching in the Bible are placarding words, heraldic words. There is an announcement, a declaration. It is not merely a dialogue. There was a place, doubtless, for dialoguing in the marketplace with the local Stoics and Epicureans. There was a place for that, but the primacy of the communication in the New Testament is heraldic precisely because it is God’s means of disclosing people and confronting people again and again and again.

I am often asked to do debates with people on TV or in universities and this sort of thing, and the vast majority of those invitations I turn down, not because I can’t handle myself on my feet — we call our daughter motormouth, and I know where she gets it — but because I’m afraid of the format. I’m afraid at the end of the day people will go away and simply say, “Well, on the one hand, and on the other hand. That was a good point. He was a better debater. Over here this seems good. Well, it seems on the other hand a pretty good point.”

At the end of the day, there is no confrontation with a “Thus says the Lord.” Again, I’m not saying there’s no place for debate. I do some of them, but I worry about the move toward endless discussion and endless dialogue and endless debate without this anointed confrontation, for preaching is at heart, in this sense, a revelatory act.

Preaching Saves the Saved

God himself has ordained that men and women be saved by the foolishness of the thing preached. That is a participial construction. Not by the foolishness of preaching (the act, per se) but by the foolishness of the message preached. At the end of the day, it’s still by the foolishness of the message preached. Not by the foolishness of the message discussed but by the foolishness of the message heralded.

Moreover, God has ordained that his truth, his Word, be the sanctifying agent of his people. On the night that he is betrayed, Jesus cries to heaven, “Sanctify them through your truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). Indeed, there is a collocation in Scripture between Word and Spirit. If you have one of those computer programs that does collocation searches (either-and-or-type things), find all the passages in the Bible with Word and Spirit in the same context. It’s a shockingly high number!

It is for this reason, I think, that the Puritans used the term prophesying for preaching. I think it is a mistake in category if you think of prophesy in certain high senses in Scripture or in certain designated ways, but I understand what they were getting at. They were saying the Word properly expounded in the power of the Spirit was one of these declaratory and revelatory acts. It may be a confusing category today, but I understand what they were getting at.

The Testmoniy of Personal Experience

Then there is simply the testimony of personal experience. Packer says in one of his essays in a lovely line,

Christianity, on earth as in heaven, is [I echo 1 John 1:4] fellowship with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ, and the preaching of God’s Word in the power of God’s Spirit is the activity that [I echo Isaiah 64:1 and John 14:21–23] brings the Father and the Son down from heaven to dwell with men. I know this, for I have experienced it. (The Preacher and Preaching, 1)

Now, that’s not the last word — experience. On the other hand, I pray God most of you have, on occasion, sat under anointed ministry and have known the Spirit of God present by the Word. “I have known it,” Packer says, “for I have experienced it.” Then he goes on to talk about his years sitting under Lloyd-Jones’ ministry.

I heard Lloyd-Jones often. I only preached for him once, but I heard him often and almost every time the critical part of my brain kicked in, analyzing. The first five or ten minutes I was saying, “There he goes again. This guy’s overrated.” I know you’re not supposed to admit to saying things like that about Lloyd-Jones, but that’s the way I responded to almost every sermon I ever heard from him for the first five or ten minutes, and then I realized that, by God’s Spirit, he had me again.

Unction. The collocation of Word and Spirit. God’s gracious self-disclosure through his Word. Believe it, brothers and sisters, or your preaching will be arid.

A Definition of Expository Preaching

Now, let me come then to a definition of expository preaching. You knew I’d get here eventually, didn’t you? Let me give you five elements in expository preaching and, then, establish why expository preaching ought to be primary. I assume now the definition of preaching already given, and with expository as the adjective in front of preaching, I now articulate these five points.

1. Directly and Demonstrably from Scripture

It is preaching subject matter that emerges directly and demonstrably from a passage or passages of Scripture.

Some use the category expository preaching for all preaching that is faithful to Scripture. Sinclair Ferguson is very close to that when he uses exegetical preaching and expository preaching almost indistinguishably, and John Stott is close to that view, but I don’t mean quite that.

I still want to distinguish expository preaching from topical preaching, textual preaching, and a number of other things by later points in my definition, but at base, at very least, what it must do is bring forth truth from a passage or from passages of Scripture. In that sense, it must be controlled by text or texts.

Textual preaching will often focus on a very small text that, then, through thematic links joins the structure of systematic theology at many points, but it loses the flow of the context very often. Expository preaching demonstrably ties things, first and foremost, to explication of text or texts.

Topical preaching (slightly different again) finds its organizing principle and its stop-off point not with a text but with some external order. You are going to preach on the love of God. Then, from that point, you choose texts and you make up your outline and you emphasize certain things, not from texts themselves, but from some external ordering which is then supported by a large number of texts. Expository preaching doesn’t do that. Expository preaching finds its content emerging directly from Scripture.

2. Not a Commentary

It is not simply running commentary on text. In Britain, there’s still a category that’s used lost on this side of the water called Bible readings. What they mean by Bible readings are sort of expository homilies that run through texts. You might take a chapter and give a kind of running commentary right through the whole chapter. That’s a Bible reading, a very useful category, but expository preaching is differentiated from a Bible reading by two or three particulars.

First, it is heavily committed to application. Bible readings tend to be a little less committed to application. Secondly, it is far more concerned with structure in order to organize points into a hierarchy, for all kinds of reasons. Thirdly, each sermon coheres. That is to say, in Bible readings it is quite appropriate to say, “Last time we finished at chapter six. We pick up from there,” and you keep rattling on. That’s appropriate in a Bible reading.

In a sermon, it’s not appropriate. The sermon must cohere. There may be allusions back to what came, and there will certainly be allusions to what is coming; nevertheless, the sermon as a sermon coheres. You remember there will be some present who have not heard the last sermon and won’t hear the next.

3. Organization of an Exposition of Scripture

It is not necessarily systematic preaching through a book or large parts of a book. It may be that, but it is not necessarily that. It is possible, for example, to do a series on temptation. You might begin with the temptation of Joseph and expound Genesis 39. Then you might turn to the temptation of Hezekiah. Then you might turn to the temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4 and Luke 4) and finally end up with your temptation and expound James 1.

In each case, you are expounding substantial blocks of Scripture, but here the organizing principle for which blocks you choose comes from outside Scripture. The exposition itself in each case comes from Scripture. That is still exposition. Thus, you might preach a series, Songs of Experience, and expound ten of the psalms: a psalm dealing with doubt, a psalm dealing with joy, a psalm dealing with fear, a psalm dealing with lust, a psalm dealing with forgiveness. Do you see?

In each case, you would want to expound the psalm and make its inner-biblical connections clear, but the organizing principle for the choice of the passages has come from outside. Or again, Visions of God and expound Exodus 19 and 20 and Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 4 and 5. Now your organizing principle is still from the outside, but in each case, each sermon is nothing less and nothing other than an exposition of Scripture. That is still exposition.

You might even do something like expound the Apostles’ Creed. You say, “That’s not Scripture.” Oh, it can be. There is a church in Toronto, Knox Presbyterian Church, which confronts summer drift by having an expository series on Wednesday nights and inviting anybody who isn’t going anywhere else, because so many prayer meetings have closed down in Toronto during the summer, to come there. They bring in expositors, and it’s always an expository series.

One summer they did the Apostles’ Creed, and each clause in the Apostles’ Creed was taken as the point that was going to be emphasized that night, but the sermon had to be expository. I was given, “I believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God,” so I expounded John 5:16–30, one of the richest “Son of God” passages in the New Testament. Thus, it is an exposition of Scripture, but all of those expositions together worked to form a kind of summation of the Apostolic Creed. It is an organizing principle from without.

4. Expository Preaching Teaches How to Read the Text

The length of the passage is exceedingly variable. You may take eight years with Lloyd-Jones on Romans 1–8 if you have Lloyd-Jones’ gifts. If you do not, do not try to duplicate them. Roy Clements at Eden Baptist Church in Cambridge went through Job in four. The most powerful series on Job I’ve ever heard. Bill Fitch, at Knox twenty years ago, went through the Minor Prophets in twelve (one night for each prophet) and gave an overview of what they were saying and how they apply to us today.

But, if I may say so, I do think our age is particularly short of a certain kind of expository sermon, the expository sermon of a passage that is sufficiently long that you teach people how to read their Bibles. I’ll come back to that point. I think it’s very important.

We are ministering now to men and women who have no Bible knowledge at all in many, many cases, and if you pull half of a verse out and expound for forty-five minutes you may not be teaching people how to read their texts. If you’re dealing with people who already know their Bibles in some measure and you show a lot more other connections, that’s a little different. That’s another world.

5. Draws Attention to Inner-Canonical Connections within Scripture

Finally, and this is the point that introduces me to the main topic for tomorrow morning. This is extremely important. Everything else I’ve said tonight I’m sure you’ve already thought about. This one I’m less sure that you’ve thought about.

At its best, it is preaching, which however dependent it may be for its content on the text or texts at hand, draws attention to inner-canonical connections — connections within Scripture — that inexorably move to Jesus Christ.

Have you ever started a series on Jeremiah, been in it for about ten weeks, and realized you haven’t mentioned Jesus yet? Or you started a series on the Psalms and talked endlessly about God but never mentioned Jesus or the cross or the gospel? Or the life of David. You’re full of moralizing (“Do this; don’t do that. He was good here; be good. He was bad there; don’t be bad.”), but you never get to Jesus.

You suddenly start saying, “Wait! Maybe this topical preaching is a little better after all! There are so many large swaths of Scripture that don’t say much about Jesus or the gospel, so if I just keep my finger narrowly on the text, I may go weeks and weeks and weeks and never get close to what I profess is central. What shall I do?” then go back to topical preaching. No.

Expository preaching at its best not only expounds the text at hand but through inner-canonical connections, through biblical-theological categories, moves inexorably to Jesus Christ. I’ll talk about some ways of doing that tomorrow morning.

Why Establish Expository Preaching as Primary

Why, then, establish expository preaching as primary? Not exclusive, but as primary.

1. Expository preaching is the method least likely to stray too far from Scripture. If, in fact, you are preaching on what the Bible says about self-esteem (which is not much) — if, instead, you’re trying to preach on personal identity in the Bible, undoubtedly you can find some useful things, but even when you say entirely true things, almost certainly you will abstract them from the Bible’s central storyline and, thus, introduce wobble if you do it week after week after week.

2. Expository preaching, when it’s done well, teaches people how to read their Bibles. It teaches people how to read their Bibles, especially if you’re taking half a chapter at a shot. It’s teaching people how to think through their passages text after text after text after text, not only to understand them but to apply them to their lives.

3. Expository preaching gives confidence to the preacher and, rightly done, authorizes the sermon. If you understand the text aright and if you apply it humbly and with unction, you know this is God’s message, this is God’s truth. Whatever is going on in the church, whatever people like about you or don’t like about you, whatever schismatics have interrupted the peace of the congregation, or however fast the growth is you know this is God’s truth. That is wonderfully freeing.

4. If truly applied, as all true preaching is, it meets the need for relevance without letting the clamor for relevance dictate the message. If all you’re doing is expounding Scripture it won’t meet that criteria, but all true preaching is properly applied. We’ll come to the question of application in the third session, To Wound and to Heal, but if this message is truly applied, it meets the demand for relevance without letting the clamor for relevance dictate the message. That is of extraordinary importance in our generation.

5. It not only enables but forces the preacher to handle the tough questions. You start working through text after text, and pretty soon you hit those divorce passages, pretty soon you’re going to hit those homosexual passages, and pretty soon you’re going to hit those women in ministry passages.

Whether you like it or not, however, you come down on this or that issue, you have to deal with the text. Thus, it enables you where you think you really ought to but you barely have the courage and it forces you to where you don’t really want to do it. Systematic preaching of the Word frees you in both of these ways.

6. Expository preaching enables the preacher most systematically to expound the whole counsel of God so long as the chunks are substantial.

Calvin, in the last fifteen years of his life, expounded Genesis, Deuteronomy, Judges, Job, some of Psalms, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, the Major and Minor Prophets, the Gospels in a harmony, Acts, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and the Pastoral Epistles.

Let me tell you frankly, some of you men won’t get through more than a tenth of the Bible in forty years of ministry. What’s the matter? Don’t you believe in preaching the whole counsel of God? We stand in a noble heritage where the whole counsel of God did not mean half a phrase at a time.

It is possible to preach the whole counsel of God half a phrase at a time if what you are doing is taking the little phrases and moving through them to the larger structures of biblical and systematic theology, which is precisely what Lloyd-Jones did so well. Now you have the whole counsel of God configured systematically. What you don’t have is the whole counsel of God configured in biblical theology. And I love Lloyd-Jones.

Matthew Henry at Chester in England preached the New Testament in the morning and the Old Testament in the evening, and he managed to preach the whole Bible twice. Midweek he went through the Psalms, and he covered them five times in the course of his ministry at Chester. I’m not suggesting we organize ourselves exactly the same way.

He was preaching to a stable population. People weren’t turning over every five years and all the rest, but at the end of the day, preaching the whole counsel of God means we have to take large chunks of the whole Bible and teach the whole Bible.

Question and Answer

Question: Would you comment on lectionary preaching?

Don: Its great advantage is regularly working through principal themes year after year after year. That’s its great advantage. Its disadvantage is the flip side: there are all kinds of things that are not touched. It was invented at a time when so many people in their congregations were illiterate. Not just biblically illiterate; they were illiterate. Therefore, the only way of drumming home certain texts and certain themes again and again and again was on some sort of calendrical system: a one-year, two-year, or three-year lectionary.

I have no objection to it so long as the teaching and preaching is expository in any case. I do think it does miss certain things, namely going through whole books at a rapid pace, but whole books just the same, so people are encouraged to read into them and so forth.

Question: Every preacher ought to preach one topical sermon a year and then repent? Is that an exaggeration?

Don: It’s worse than an exaggeration; it’s a kaiserism. I don’t think there’s a rule. For example, if I’m doing evangelistic preaching — the kind of evangelistic preaching I like to do is in a controlled setting — for example, at a university where, in the room I put down a printed copy of the text I’m going to be dealing with on each sheet. Nobody is going to bring a Bible. I go into that kind of situation and I automatically assume nowadays that two-thirds of the non-Christians present at the evangelistic meetings I speak at have never held a Bible in their hands or, if they have, don’t know the Bible has two Testaments, and that’s a low estimate in my experience in recent years. What that means, therefore, is they’re not going to bring a Bible to this thing.

I still want them, ultimately, to move from confidence in me to confidence in text, so when they sit down and pick it up and make paper airplanes of it, it’s sort of there. They sit on it. The sermon will come in from anywhere (left field or whatever), but then I’ll bring it to the point, “This is tied to the sheet you’re sitting on.” They pull it out. Gradually, then, I can work through to an expository sermon. I often do that so even evangelism is expository.

But there are some situations where, quite frankly, I’m still not at the place where an expository sermon is the best approach. I’m in Acts 17. When you’re in Acts 17 and people haven’t even heard of the Bible, it may be appropriate to start painting worldviews first, which is what Paul does before he gets around to talking about Jesus.

There is a place for topical messages here and there, where it may be wiser to use topical messages. They’re still biblical in the sense that they’re painting a large biblical picture, but they’re not biblical in the sense that they’re expository. If you do a lot of evangelism in really hostile circumstances, then I grant you permission to preach more topical sermons. Otherwise not!

I don’t know. There’s the temperamental factor and other things as well. I mean, I’m poorly placed to start criticizing powerful sermons from great men of God in other generations. I’m simply outlining the importance of the Word as I see it, both in experience and in theology.

Question: Would you give an example of what you mean by larger chunks?

Don: At Word Alive in England this past year. Word Alive is a subset of Spring Harvest. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. They gather about five thousand people for biblical expositions. I had about an hour and a quarter a shot, and I went through Philippians in four. The Sermon on the Mount I’ve done in six.

I’m not for a moment saying anything less than five verses is a sin. There are different emphases, different styles, and different study habits. The last thing I want to do is set up a new generation of rules, but I would like to push the envelope a bit so we think in larger chunks in Reformed expository circles. I would like to push the envelope a bit.

is emeritus professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He is a founding member of The Gospel Coalition, and the author of How Long, O Lord?