What We Believe
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Expository Preaching: What Is It and Why Should We Do It?

Dennis E. Johnson

Pastors rightly feel the weight of our calling to feed Christ’s people a robust and balanced diet of God’s Word, full of spiritual nutrients. We long to be able to echo what Paul said to the elders of the church at Ephesus, as he looked back over his ministry there: “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying ... of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.... I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:20–21, 26–27). What audacious claims to make for a preaching and teaching ministry that lasted only three years (v. 31)! Without fear of contradiction Paul asserted that he had not withheld from his hearers “anything that was profitable,” that he had delivered “the whole counsel of God.” Even after a pastorate of thirty-three years, would we dare to echo Paul’s claim? Yet all Scripture is God-breathed, so all of it is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). How should we follow in the Apostle’s footsteps as stewards of God’s mysteries (1 Cor. 4:1), faithfully distributing his bounty to his hungry household (Luke 12:42)?

Pastors have many shepherding duties, but none can rival our central calling to preach the Word (2 Tim. 4:2). The church has witnessed various approaches to preaching over the centuries: expository, evangelistic, catechetical, festal, and prophetic.[1] Preeminent among these, I would claim, is the expository sermon. Let me elaborate that thesis: For the health, safety, and growth of Christ’s people and for the advance of the gospel among the unchurched, pastors must preach carefully-studied, meditatively-processed, thoroughly-prayed, contextually-applied, Christ-centered expository sermons. Our sermons should explore the wide spectrum of the Bible’s books and genres and texts, from Old Testament and New, applying the various forms of God’s speech to the diversity of human sin and suffering. In this essay I will first explain what I mean by expository preaching, and then give reasons that such an approach to preaching faithfully fulfills our calling to proclaim “the whole counsel of God.”

What Is Expository Preaching?

An expository sermon is drawn from and controlled by the distinctive content of the biblical passage being “exposited.” The text drives and dictates the sermon’s thesis, structure, purpose, and application. An expository message is different, for example, from a topical sermon, which brings together a variety of biblical passages to address a theme, whether doctrinal or ethical. Catechetical preaching, practiced in the continental Reformed churches, often consists of topical sermons in which various biblical texts are enlisted to demonstrate the doctrinal conclusions summarized in the catechism’s answers.[2] The expository sermon, on the other hand, does not try to communicate what the whole Bible says on a particular subject, but rather to express the message and mission of one specific text—a psalm, a parable, the narrative of an event in history, a section of doctrinal discourse or ethical exhortation, etc.

The focus of an expository sermon on unfolding the meaning, flow, and implications of one biblical passage appears in classic definitions of expository preaching over the last few centuries. Southern Baptist John Broadus wrote in his influential A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons (originally published 1870):

An expository discourse may be defined as one which is occupied mainly, or at any rate very largely, with the exposition of Scripture. It by no means excludes argument and exhortation as to the doctrines or lessons which this exposition develops. It may be devoted to a long passage, or to a very short one, even a part of a sentence. It may be one of a series, or may stand by itself.[3]

That same year (1870) Presbyterian Robert L. Dabney published Sacred Rhetoric, in which he wrote:

If the text [of a sermon] contains a number of verses of Scripture, the whole of which are to be explained and applied in their connection, the discussion is called an “expository” sermon. If the text contains only a single proposition, or at most a brief passage of the Word presenting one point, it is denominated by some a “textual” and by others a “topical” sermon. But ... assuredly every expository sermon ought to be textual in the true sense, and ... many expository and narrative sermons may be topical.[4]

Haddon Robinson, who has taught homiletics at Dallas, Denver, and Gordon-Conwell Seminaries, offers this definition:

Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through him to his hearers.[5]

More recently, in Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, Presbyterian Bryan Chapell explains the expository homiletic that he seeks to “redeem”:

A sermon that explores any biblical concept is in the broadest sense “expository,” but the technical definition of an expository sermon requires that it expound Scripture by deriving from a specific text main points and subpoints that disclose the thought of the author, cover the scope of the passage, and are applied to the lives of the listeners.[6]

Some flexibility is built into these definitions of “expository preaching.” As Broadus observes, the biblical text to be exposited may be long or short. Expository sermons may belong to a series that continuously expounds a biblical book in order (lectio continua, discussed below). But an expository sermon may also stand alone. The common thread is the sermon’s focus on unfolding and applying the message of a single passage of Scripture, understood in its appropriate contexts (literary, historical, and ultimately canonical).

To the general definitions offered by Broadus, Dabney, Robinson, and Chapell, I would add some details: Good expository sermons should be carefully-studied, Christ-centered, meditatively-processed, thoroughly-prayed, and contextually-applied. Let’s explore these qualities, and we will see how they help us avoid pitfalls sometimes associated with expository preaching.

Carefully-Studied. The life-transforming power of any sermon springs from the sovereign power of God’s Holy Spirit, but the Spirit uses means. So we can also say that the authority and persuasiveness of an expository sermon depend on the pastor’s showing his listeners that the message he is conveying is, in fact, what the biblical text itself says. So the preacher takes pains to demonstrate that he is not exploiting a scriptural passage as a mere pretext for propounding his own theories. Rather, he comes as a servant to the text, urging hearers to submit their minds and hearts to the Word, as he has. Responsible expository preaching therefore demands that the pastor do his homework, hard work, drawing on every resource available to him in order to grasp, fully and accurately as possible, the message of that particular text. This includes disciplined analysis of the semantics and syntax of the original language (Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek), features of the literary genre, the immediate historical setting and the text’s location in the unfolding history of biblical revelation and God’s covenants, other relevant passages throughout the Bible. Preparing expository sermons is demanding work, because our aim is to exhibit such submission to God’s message in a specific text that, though we are not apostles, our hearers will respond to our sermons as the Thessalonian believers responded to Paul’s: “When you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thess. 2:13).

Christ-Centered. If a sermon gives adequate attention to a passage’s words and phrases, its literary and historical environments, its theological themes, and its contemporary relevance, but fails to place it into its most important context, then some may call it “expository,” but it falls far short of the goal of true Christian preaching. That most important context is the history of God’s redemptive plan, worked out in history and climaxing in Christ. This is not the place to make this case at length, so I won’t discuss Jesus’s interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures as all about himself (John 5:45–47; Luke 24:25–27, 44–29; see 1 Pet. 1:10–11); or trace the way that Paul sums up the content that he preaches simply as “Christ” (1 Cor. 1:18–25; 2:2; Phil. 1:14–18; Col. 1:25–28; 2:2–3; see Eph. 4:20–24); or show that apostles asserted that the Old Testament had us new covenant believers in view (1 Cor. 10:6–11; 1 Pet. 1:12).[7] Since Christ Jesus is the only mediator between God and men (1 Tim. 2:5), since God’s plan for the fullness of time is to unite all things in Christ (Eph. 1:9), and since only Christ could accomplish what the law as commandment could never do (Rom. 8:1–4), then any sermon that fails to show the text’s connection to Christ has ignored the text’s most significant and most life-transforming context.

Meditatively-Processed and Thoroughly-Prayed. The demands of preparing expository sermons do not end when we have explored the passage in its every context and answered every interpretive question it poses. An expository sermon is not an exegetical lecture. It is not a running, word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase commentary on the passage’s linguistic and literary features, its historical background, or its theological concepts, interspersed with whatever “applications” suggest themselves to the preacher’s mind as he struggles to connect an ancient text to his contemporary hearers. To convey the text’s unique message and to serve its God-designed mission (purpose), the expository preacher needs to immerse his preparation in a spiritual discipline of stepping back from the plethora of intriguing details turned up in his exegetical spadework. He must get perspective on the passage as a whole: What is its central theme? What transformative purpose does the Spirit of God, who breathed out the text, intend to accomplish in people’s lives today? In this pregnant pause between digging, on the one hand, and delivering, on the other, we need illumination from the text’s divine Author, so prayer must permeate our pondering. For ourselves and our hearers we ask “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened” (Eph. 1:17–18). If expository sermons are to resonate with the ring of truth, preachers must spend time in quiet meditation and humble petition, asking the Holy Spirit to write the text first into their own hearts, and then into hearers’ hearts as well.

Contextually-Applied. Expository preaching at its best becomes a bridge “between two worlds.”[8] It connects its first recipients’ life-context and locale in redemptive-covenantal history, on the one hand, to our cultural environment today, on the other. In terms of the deep realities—our unchanging creator and Lord, our identity as his image-bearers who have fallen into sin, our need of redemption, and his provision of the matchless redeemer —our context now and theirs then are identical. But God works in history. So history’s ceaseless change is significant. The realities that span ages display themselves in different ways at different times. As our prayerful meditation turns toward the challenge of our proclaiming the text’s burden to others, our exposition has to take account not only of era-transcending spiritual truths but also of the distinctive challenges to God’s message posed by our location in time and space. Idolatry is a constant threat. But the idols that vie for our allegiance today are rarely carved from wood or cast in gold. Instead, they may take the form of sophisticated electronics or economic investments. Faithful expository preaching interprets both the biblical text and the time in which we live.

Reasons for Expository Preaching

1. The expository approach to preaching reminds pastors and shows their listeners that preachers are “men under authority,” like the rest of us. Jesus marveled over the faith expressed by a Roman centurion, who understood Jesus’s authority to heal with a word as analogous to the military chain of command that he knew well: “For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” (Matt. 8:9–10) Pastors too are men under authority, “stewards of the mysteries of God,” slaves entrusted with our master’s message and charged to preserve and deliver it, undistorted and undiluted—uninfected by our own opinions—to others (1 Cor. 4:1–2; see 2 Cor. 2:17). When our sermon exposes the distinctive message of a biblical passage, we are implicitly inviting listeners to put our words to the test of God’s Word, as the members of the synagogue at Berea did to Paul’s preaching: “They received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).

2. Expository preaching implicitly subverts the postmodern “hermeneutic of suspicion” that views preaching as a pastoral power-play to wield influence over congregants. Topical sermons, which convene a variety of biblical passages to address a single theme, should express the fullness and balance of God’s revealed truth concerning that theme. In principle, every passage cited in a topical sermon should be soundly interpreted in context. But even when a topical sermon faithfully fulfills its mission to present the Bible’s truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, jaded postmodern listeners may harbor suspicions that the preacher is playing fast and loose with Scripture, “cherry-picking” texts that support his point and ignoring others, in order to leverage its endorsement for his own ends. Expository sermons, on the other hand, help to disarm skeptics of the suspicion that the preacher has chosen this Sunday’s Scripture for the sake of some personal agenda.

3. Expository preaching models how to read Scripture in its contexts. Whenever pastors preach, they are setting an example for those who hear them. Consciously or unintentionally, preachers model for the persons in the pew what should be “best practices” in studying and understanding the Bible. When they lead listeners into the passage’s content and flow of thought, placing it against the backdrops of its book, its historical occasion, and its place in the Bible’s big story of redemption in Christ, preachers are implicitly informing and forming how their congregants will read the Word throughout the week.

4. Expository preaching displays the integration of God’s various ways of speaking in the Bible. It is fine to distill from a biblical text doctrines to be believed and duties to be fulfilled. And we can draw together the truths and obligations distilled from different passages into a coherent summary, a “pattern of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13). Our confessions and catechisms handle the Bible in this way, sketching for our finite minds the vast system of truth that the Lord has disclosed in his Word. Yet God’s speech in Scripture displays the variety we hear in other conversations, interweaving truth and urgency, delight and dismay. The Westminster Confession of Faith (14.2) cites some of the different ways God addresses us when it describes saving faith’s response to the Bible’s various tones of voice (emphasis added):

By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein; and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof contains; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.

Often doctrine and duty (truth and command, gospel and law, indicative and imperative), not to mention threatenings and promises and love songs and laments, come interwoven with one another in the biblical text, just as our everyday conversations blend appeals or demands with rationales and motivations. A topical sermon enjoining truth-telling could certainly appeal to Ephesians 4:25. But an expository sermon on Ephesians 4:25, will not only show that we must speak truth but also why: “for we are members of one another,” which evokes the imagery of the church as the body of Christ (4:12–16). When pastors preach passages as we find them in the Bible, our listeners are drawn into the lively conversation that our God has initiated and carried with his people.

Expository Preaching and Lectio Continua Series

Preaching pastors labor at the intersection between God’s final, firm, fully sufficient revelation in the Bible and the vicissitudes of his people’s life in the present. How can we preach to meet the diversity of spiritual conditions represented in the folks sitting attentively before us as we enter the pulpit? How can we prepare and serve a balanced, healthy diet for our hearers’ hearts, the right blend of various nutrients—Old Testament and New, narrative and doctrinal texts, praise and lament, passages that comfort and those that command—in appropriate proportions?

Expository preaching is often associated with continuous sermon series that work through one book of the Bible after another. This practice of continuously preaching through books or sections of Scripture over a span of weeks or months or years, called lectio continua (continuous reading), has ancient and honorable pedigree. Church fathers such as Origen and John Chrysostom planned and conducted their preaching agenda this way. After centuries in which the church’s homiletical diet was controlled by lectionaries and liturgical calendars, Protestant Reformers such as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli revived the practice of preaching through biblical books.[9] It makes sense to connect an expository handling of a specific biblical passage, on the one hand, with the lectio continua approach to scheduling a congregation’s ongoing diet in the Word, on the other. It models the sound practice of reading each passage in the Bible in context.

Some may wonder whether an unbroken series of sermons that plods, text by text, through a long biblical book—Job, for example—over a period of months or years might run the risk of serving one’s congregation an imbalanced spiritual diet. Consider the numbers. Depending on a church’s weekly schedule, today’s pastor will typically proclaim God’s Word in Lord’s Day worship services between 50 and 100 times a year. Pastors with extraordinary expository preaching ministries may sustain lectio continua series in a single book over a span of years. During his ministry to Westminster Chapel, Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones preached 366 sermons on the Epistle to the Romans on Friday evenings. That is the equivalent of seven years of messages, although the series actually extended over thirteen years.[10] Yet Lloyd-Jones also preached twice each Lord’s Day, feeding God’s flock on other sections of God’s Word.[11] Pastors who preach only once or twice weekly might expose their flocks to “the whole counsel” of God by taking Romans in bigger “bites” than the Doctor did, or by interspersing briefer series on smaller biblical books among their expositions of longer books (Isaiah) or deeper books (Romans). A lectio continua series of expository sermons could also focus on discrete units within books (for example, the Joseph narrative in Genesis 37–50, or the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7).

Pastoral wisdom is needed in mapping out a congregation’s homiletical diet year-by-year. The distinctive spiritual challenges confronting the congregation should be taken into account in selecting biblical books, or sections of books, to be preached. The important thing is that pastors demonstrate their submission to the Word, display the distinctive message of each passage, and proclaim the Bible’s coherent witness to Christ and his grace in each and every sermon.

Endnotes

[1] Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 1, The Biblical Period (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 8. Old refers to these categories throughout this seven-volume series.

[2] On the other hand, catechetical preaching can be offered through expository sermons, expounding one primary biblical passage that reveals the truth summarized in the catechism (or a significant aspect of that truth) in a contextually-fitting way, as I will mention below.

[3] John Albert Broadus, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, ed. E. C. Dargan, rev. ed. (New York; London: Harper, 1926), 322.

[4] Robert Lewis Dabney, Evangelical Eloquence: A Course of Lectures on Preaching (Edinburgh; Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth, 1999), 76. Originally, Sacred Rhetoric: A Course of Lectures on Preaching (1870). Dabney went on to register his vigorous disapproval of a “species of discourse upon insulated fragments of Scripture, which should never have had a place in the Church at all. We will call them, for convenience, sermons without context.”

[5] Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 20 (italics original).

[6] Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 132 (italics original). The first edition appeared in 1994.

[7] Dennis E Johnson, Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007).

[8] John R. W Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982).

[9] For the big picture of the lectio continua approach to sermon series, see Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, 7 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998–2010), which was reviewed in four parts in Ordained Servant 21 (2012), 148–53; 22 (2013), 130–32; 23.3 (March 2014), 15–19; and 23.8 (October 2014), 24–30. (Accessed at: http://www.opc.org/os.html)

[10] Iain H. Murray, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith 1939-1981 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1990), 233, 582–8. Murray reports that the Friday sermon series ran from October through May, “with a short break at Christmas and Easter” (233 n1). The Romans series began in 1955 and concluded in March 1968. Audio-recordings of 366 of those sermons can still be heard online.

[11] In the preface to Preaching and Preachers, Dr. Lloyd-Jones reported preaching ordinarily three times each weekend at Westminster Chapel. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), 3.

Dennis E. Johnson is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America serving as a professor of practical theology at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido, and associate pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Escondido, California. Ordained Servant Online, May 2015.

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Ordained Servant: May 2015

Preach the Word!

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