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What is Expository Preaching? (Part One)

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Expository preaching is a term that is widely used but there are some variations in its usage and definition.

The definition I have used throughout my ministry is that an expository sermon will make the main idea of the passage the main idea of the sermon. A sermon can be one verse or an entire book of the Bible as long as the focus of the biblical passage is the main focus of the sermon. This is the main goal of expository preaching: to expose what the Bible says to the church.

Doing this is more than just a preferred method or style of communication. An expositor chooses to do the hard work of working through difficult books and passages because he has a high view of Scripture. He sees the worth of God’s Word as infinitely more valuable than his own ideas or creativity. David Helm writes, “Expositional preaching is empowered preaching that rightfully submits the shape and emphasis of the sermon to the shape and emphasis of a biblical text.”[1] In other words, the practice of expository preaching is a tangible way to show how the preacher values the Bible because he allows it to drive his sermons. Tim Keller notes, “Expository preaching is the best method for displaying and conveying your conviction that the whole Bible is true. This approach testifies that you believe every part of the Bible to be God’s Word, not just particular themes and not just the parts you feel comfortable agreeing with.”[2]

A preacher who has a high view of Scripture should be drawn to expository preaching because it values God’s Word above all human wisdom. Tony Merida explains, “Preaching, then, is about making God’s Word known publicly to a particular audience. More specifically, faithful preaching involves explaining what God has said in his Word, declaring what God has done in his Son, and applying this message to the hearts of people. The best approach for accomplishing this agenda is expository preaching.”[3] The Word must dictate and direct how we preach and what we preach. Haddon Robinson observes:

If expository preaching—which is biblical preaching—is the most relevant message we can offer to our hearers, then what do we mean by expository preaching? In the broadest sense, it is preaching that draws its substance from the Scriptures. Actually, true exposition is more of an attitude than a method. It is the honest answer to the questions, “Do I subject my thought to the Scriptures, or do I subject the Scriptures to my thought?” Those are not the same questions as, “Is my sermon theologically orthodox?” (Many orthodox sermons assert a proposition without grounding it in biblical revelation.) Or the question, “Do my sermons contain an assortment of Bible verses?” Or “Is my sermon perceived as coming from the Bible?” It is to ask, “When I approach the Scriptures for a message to preach do I allow the Bible to shape my sermon, or do I let what I have already decided to say determine what I take from the Bible?” Before we stand to speak do we sit and listen to what a passage actually says?[4]

An expository sermon should always have the biblical text guide the flow of the sermon.

For those who have a high view of Scripture, there is a danger in delivering a sermon that is nothing more than a running commentary. In the next post, I will address a few of those concerns and why some avoid expository preaching, but the truth is that exposition should never be boring. A running commentary is boring to most people as is a bland, dry sermon. A good sermon should showcase the gospel (never boring) but it must also connect to the listeners so they can apply the timeless words of Scripture to the problems and difficulties they face. This requires knowing the audience of the biblical text as well as the culture of the modern-day audience. The preacher must be able to build the bridge that spans thousands of years so that the listeners will have something that is relevant and applicable. Anything less does a disservice to both the listener and the Bible because it reduces both to nothing more than an academic talk with no real answers for our problems.

The preacher must contextualize the passage of Scripture to his audience and culture, but that cannot happen without the preacher first exegeting Scripture. Helm reasons:

All preaching must begin with exegesis. To put it differently: contextualization, theological reflection, and matters of today are held at bay—we should be committed to a process of preparation that keeps first things first. By this I mean that a faithful preacher starts the sermon preparation process by paying attention to a biblical text’s original audience and a text’s purposes for those readers. And he makes this first audience his first concern in three different ways. In one fashion or another, he:

1. Gives the biblical context (rather than his own context) control over the meaning of the text.
2. Listens intently until he knows how the text fits within the overall message of the book.
3. Sees the structure and emphasis of the text.

Did you notice how nothing in the above list deals with contextualization? Contextualization is important…but good biblical expositors train themselves to hold off that step until later in the process.[5]

 These two things (scriptural and cultural exegesis) must work in tandem if the preacher is to be faithful to the text and connect with his audience. Matthew Kim agrees:

When we think about tailoring the message for a particular cultural group, some preachers start with people and then try to adapt or modify God’s Word to fit the values and perspectives of that cultural context. The danger is that following this model forces the preacher to dart too quickly to application. We are trying to apply the meaning of a passage that we do not understand. In contrast to this view, the starting place in sermon preparation should always be God’s Word. We suspend application by first determining the meaning of the text in its context. Once we properly understand what Scripture means, we can then apply it to our varied listeners.[6] 

Kim notes that the preacher must begin with hermeneutics and not with the values of the cultural context. He observes, “If we start with understanding humans today, our preaching and teaching are susceptible to eisegesis—reading into the text what is not there, based on our specific cultural lens.” According to Kim, the most appropriate thing a preacher can do is begin with God’s Word and then apply it to a specific context.[7]

Future posts in this series will focus on risks inherent in committing to expository preaching as well as some common criticisms.

 

[1] David Helm, Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 13.

[2] Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Penguin Books, 2015), 32.

[3] Tony Merida, The Christ-Centered Expositor: A Field Guide for Word-Driven Disciple Makers (Nashville: B&H, 2016), 9 (Merida's italics).

[4] Haddon W. Robinson, “The Relevance of Expository Preaching,” in Preaching to a Shifting Culture: 12 Perspectives on Communicating That Connects (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004), 82.

[5] Helm, 40 (Helm's italics).

[6] Matthew D. Kim, Preaching with Cultural Intelligence: Understanding the People Who Hear Our Sermons (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 33-34.

[7] Ibid (Kim’s italics).