Exposing Exposition

Interested in biblically faithful preaching?

Here are two questions you need to be able to answer.

What is expository preaching?

Expository preaching shares a common trait with many other subjects related to Christianity. In the discussion of exposition, there is a common vocabulary, but various dictionaries. In certain conservative circles expository preaching is a resurging subject, much to the delight of any person who believes it to be the supreme model of preaching. However, its new found popularity has not been without confusion and misrepresentation. A great deal of modern preaching is labeled exposition incorrectly. Therefore, a definition must be established

Expository preaching can be defined as preaching devoted to communicating the central meaning or idea of a biblical passage as the central message of the sermon by exploring, explaining, and applying a biblical passage with the intent of redemptive life change for the glory of God. In short, it is giving the Bible a voice. The subject, message, structure, and application of the sermon are derived from the chosen text and nothing else. I like the way Sydney Greidanus sums it up when he writes expository preaching is “Bible-centered preaching.” True expository preaching is, however, not just delivering exegetical information. It involves both a dependence on the text and the Holy Spirit’s work in the life and heart of the preacher. As Haddon Robinson astutely pointed out years ago, “Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, arrived 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.” I stress again, expository preaching is not simply the relaying of information derived from biblical study. It is the living Word of God taking root in a living person to speak to a living audience on living life!

Much debate and criticism around the subject of expository preaching asserts that it is disconnected, mundane, or just plain boring to modern audiences. Unfortunately, this type of thinking infers that the style, format, and subject of preaching are to be determined by the preferences of its hearers. I am reminded of how James Thompson addressed this when he wrote, “preaching is a trust and that the preacher is to act as a trustee of the message on God’s behalf.”[i] He is not a liberty to alter or modernize the eternal message. However, the preacher must be so in tune and surrendered to the Holy Spirit’s application of the text in his own life that he (not the text) avoids being disconnected, mundane, or just plain boring. I like to summarize it this way. Expository preaching is not boring or disconnected to a modern audience but preachers can be both!


Why is expository preaching the most faithful way to preach?

I believe I can answer this question both biblically and practically. Biblically justifying expository preaching is much more about deciding which passages to exclude than it is about searching for passages relevant to the a subject. We must go no further than II Timothy 3:16-17 to find a powerful reason for preaching through the entire word of God. Paul encourages his young protégé to remember that “all scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The biblical basis grows even stronger when we look at the theological implications of exposition derived from seeing the revelatory nature of God. God chose to reveal himself through the written word of men under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In other words, God’s picture of Himself to men is the Bible. I illustrate this by saying the Bible is God’s ultimate Facebook profile. This is why so much emphasis is placed on God’s revealed word from Genesis to Revelation. The Bible does not separate God’s words from His deeds. He is and does what the Word says He is and does. Perhaps the Israelite remnant exemplifies this most powerfully. As Nehemiah records in chapter eight of his book, when they wanted to celebrate God’s faithfulness in restoring a wall for Israel, they told Ezra to “bring out the book.”

Interestingly, Nehemiah also shows us that reading the law was not divorced from explaining its meaning. The Levites “read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.” This Law was so revered because it was given to God’s people as a sign of possession. Throughout the redemptive story we find the Moses that recorded it, David delighted in it, Jeremiah ate it, Jesus was it, Peter proclaimed the resurrection with it, Paul explained it, John saw it, and young Timothy was told above everything else to preach it! Expository preaching both biblically and theologically is the purest way to heed Paul’s call to “preach the Word…correct, rebuke, and encourage with great patience and careful instruction.”

Practically speaking there are numerous advantages and benefits to expository preaching. I like the list Vines and Shaddix provide in their book, “Power in the Pulpit.” First, preaching systematically through texts of Scripture is the greatest means to combat the growing trend among Christians toward biblical illiteracy. People do not know the God of the Bible because they do not know the Bible. Secondly, expository preaching holds two groups accountable in two ways. The preacher is held accountable to study if he commits treating each passage he preaches expositionally. Likewise, he is also held accountable to deal with the entire counsel of God’s word. He cannot pick and choose topics at will. Rather, he will be married to the subject of his chosen passage during both his preparation and his preaching. The congregation or audience is then in turn held accountable to hear the whole counsel of God’s word. Additionally, they are given no room to filter the message. By focusing on the passage, the preacher forces his hearers to make a choice. Obey God or disobey God. There is not liberty to say that a certain point is the preacher’s opinion or preference when he simply and faithfully preaches the text. In a broader sense, exposition also exposes people to God’s entire redemptive plan and the means to carry this plan out. In short, expository preaching helps the preacher promote God’s agenda for his people. Third, exposition alleviates the stress of deciding what to preach. Each week the preacher is well aware of the next section of Scripture within his series. His heart can then be focused on the task of proclaiming the text versus finding it. Fourth, preaching the Word faithfully creates hearers who demand the Word be preached faithfully. Once an individual or group grows accustomed to exposition they will not settle for anything less. Finally, and not surprisingly, this is appetite for the Word is a sign of spiritual growth and maturity. Jesus’ prayer recorded in John 17 clearly shows the relationship between God’s word and sanctification when He asks the Father to “sanctify them by the truth, your word is truth.” Expository preaching sets the tone, determines the direction, and feeds the saints of the church in a way unmatched by any other means. I have not only read this truth, I have experienced it firsthand.


Where are we today?

Describing the status of expository preaching in our culture requires a mixed response. To my knowledge, there are no statistics to show how many pastors actually engage in preaching that is authentically expositional in nature. However, if one truly believes biblical exposition to be a primary ingredient to church health the reality become obvious. We have lost many of our pulpits. Many who ardently propagate the methods of the church growth movement assert that churches are shrinking because they are not connecting. I agree that struggling or unhealthy churches do have a problem of connection. I would just clarify that it is not just a lack of connection with a lost world. Many have lost their connection with God. Carrying this premise one step further, I am convinced that the greatest way to connect God’s people to their Master is through His Word. Likewise, connection with God through His Word is accomplished most beautifully and effectively through preaching. And preaching most faithfully is done expositionally.

On an encouraging note, all is not gloom and doom. My own observations have shown a renewed interest in expository preaching among young pastors. Some of this is no doubt linked to the popularity theology study has gained along with the conservative resurgence within evangelical denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention. The doctrinal debates over the authority and infallibility of Scripture have had effects on how biblical passages are interpreted and treated within the preaching event. I am convinced God loves his church and will not allow her to starve. It is my prayer that He is raising up a new generation of leaders who break the bread of life with bold assurance in the method of exposition.

  1. James W. Thompson, Preaching Like Paul: Homiletical Wisdom for Today (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 51.