Theology Thursday

When you hear the phrase exegetical or expository preaching there can be a little bit of confusion about what this means. For some the idea is simply the teaching of God’s word verse by verse, chapter by chapter, book by book.

John Woodhouse helpfully orients our definition of expository preaching when he writes:

The richness of the Bible’s message is heard when attention is given to the particular details of the text under consideration. Certainly the major theme of a passage must be recognised – the ‘big idea’ – but the insight of just this passage is only appreciated by taking seriously the unique way in which this text is expressed.

The keys to this are:

  • Focus on a particular text
  • Attention to its particular details
  • The unique insights this particular text expresses
  • How these insights shape and inform the major theme of the passage

So does teaching verse by verse mean you are an expository preacher? Not necessarily. How can this be?

Answer: when you end up importing topical preaching into a verse by verse format.

Let me illustrate this with Romans 5:9-11

9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

The preacher who may be committed to preaching verse by verse but who ends up importing topical preaching into the text (and therefore not preaching an expository sermon) might, as an example, do the following:

In verse 9 we are told that we are ‘justified by his blood’. What does it mean to be ‘justified by his blood’? (5 minute explanation on justification). Verse 9 also says we are saved from ‘the wrath of God’. What is God’s wrath? Isn’t God meant to be all loving? (5 minutes explanation on what God’s wrath is and how good it is to be saved from it).

Verse 10 tells us we were enemies now we are reconciled (2 minute illustration on reconciliation). Verse 10 reminds us that we are reconciled by Jesus’ life.

Verse 11 is our application from being justified (in verse 9), saved from His wrath (also verse 9), and reconciled (verse 10). What does it mean to rejoice? (5 minute explanation and illustration of rejoicing). We rejoice because we have received reconciliation – isn’t this good news!

Now, when you look at the above there is nothing inherently wrong with this form of teaching. The congregation is being fed God’s Word and what has been said is true (and not heretical).

The problem, though, is that you’ve walked away with an understanding of these topics but not how the passage uses them and what unique insight on these topics is given by Romans 5:9-11. The richness of the Bible’s message has been missed, clouded by misunderstanding, or lost altogether.

What does an appropriate exposition of this text look like? Here’s my short example:

Romans 5:9-11 carries on from Paul’s building argument all the way back in chapter 1. The wrath of God, his judgement upon sin, has been revealed in chapters 2-3 in particular, and the good news of justification and reconciliation by faith has been explained in chapters 3-5. The key to these verses now is the contrastive phrases in verses9 and 10:

Since we have been justified, much more shall we be saved from his wrath. If we were reconciled by Jesus’ death, much more shall we be saved by him.

The particular insights of this particular text are: 1) to encourage us that what happened in the past (our justification by Jesus) saves us in the future (when God’s wrath is revealed) – this is the doctrine of assurance; 2) remind us that salvation is both ‘now received’ (we are saved) and ‘not yet consummated’ (we will be saved); and 3) give us the grounds of our rejoicing in God (verse 11).

Can you see the difference? In the previous example topical preaching was brought into each detail of the text. In the latter the details are explained in order to show how the text is using this information.

Now, one might pause here and wonder if this is all just kicking up a fuss when there’s no need to. But I’d like to suggest that we should have a strong definition and desire for expository preaching because it is the way in which the message of scripture speaks to us.

Gary Millar has written a fantastic chapter in this new book from Matthias Media – Saving Eutychus. In it he argues for expository preaching that preaches to the heart of people and he concludes with 8 advantages of heart-changing expository preaching (which I quote at length here and add my explanations):

Conclusion: The advantages of heart-changing, expository preaching

What are the advantages of teaching the Bible in this way?

Expository preaching:

1. Does justice to the biblical material which makes it clear that God works through his word to change people’s lives—as it ‘uncages the lion’ and allows God’s word to speak.

Expository preaching isn’t just one of many ways of preaching – it should be the main form of preaching since it is also the manner in which scripture itself teaches us (for more info see chapter 2 in the book in which Millar shows us how Deuteronomy 4:32-40, Isaiah 55:10-13, 2 Timothy 3:13-17, and Hebrews 4:9-13 all exposit scripture for the reader). Doing ‘justice to the biblical material’ is essentially to be faithful – faithful in communicating its intended message

2. Acknowledges that it is God alone, through the Spirit, who works in people’s lives, and that it is not our job to change people through clever or inspiring communication.

The best examples of expository preaching leave us in awe of the text in front of us and with a willingness and encouragement to change in response. A clearly explained passage trumps the need for clever of inspiring communication which is dependent on the communicator rather than the Spirit of God

3. Minimizes the danger of manipulating people, because the text itself controls what we say and how we say it. The Bible leaves little room for us to return repeatedly to our current bugbears and hobbyhorses.

4. Minimizes the danger of abusing power, because a sermon driven by the text creates an instant safeguard against using the Bible to bludgeon (or caress) people into doing or thinking what we want them to do or think.

How often have I heard lately of preachers using the sermon to affirm their own positions and thinking, use the sermon to angrily defend against criticism, or use the sermon to unhelpfully criticise members of the congregation. It’s plain abuse of authority.

So too is the opposite: to neglect the weightier matters of scripture and to only woo people into liking the preacher…

5. Removes the need to rely on our personality. While we all feel the weight, at times, of having little ‘inspiration’, energy or creativity, if our focus is on allowing the immense richness of Scripture to speak in all its colour and variety, the pressure is well and truly off.

6. Encourages humility in those teaching. While it can be a temptation to think that we are somehow special because we are standing at the front doing most of the talking (and, on a good day, receiving the encouragement), getting it straight that the key to preaching to the heart is simply uncovering the power and freshness of God’s words helps to keep us in our place.

7. Helps us to avoid simple pragmatism. If our focus is on working consistently to enable people to encounter the God who speaks through the text, we will not feel under pressure to address every single issue and topic as it comes up in the life of the church. Conversely, working through the Bible week by week will force us to cover subjects that we wouldn’t choose to address in a million years. In other words, expository preaching is the simplest, longest-lasting antidote we have to pragmatism.

A topical sermon on the need for evangelism might be helpful. But it seems to me that the weight of scripture is devoted to getting Christians to understand what the Gospel is and how it impacts our daily living. Expositional preaching which is committed to preaching verse by verse, chapter by chapter and book by book is necessarily going to spending more time explaining to Christians how they should view and live in the world – and this not because expositional preaching is necessarily insular/inward looking but because the weight of scripture is about how we are to be transformed in mind and spirit.

That said…

8. Drives us to preaching the gospel. As we’ll see in more detail in chapter 5, expository preaching is also uniquely valuable in that it persistently drives us to the Lord Jesus Christ (wherever we are in the Bible) and so ‘forces’ us to preach the gospel—that is, to spell out what God has already done for us in the death and resurrection of his Son, and then to move from that grace to what God asks and enables us to do. When we preach the gospel we are not simply telling people how to be good or leaving them to wallow in the overwhelming sense that they are irredeemably bad.

What is it that will transform mind and spirit? It’s the gospel. Any preaching which does not point to the grace of the gospel in Jesus Christ is essentially moralism or legalism.

True expository preaching expresses the heart and intention of scripture at in its clearest and safest form for the preacher. It’s also really hard work and one that the preacher needs to be always crafting and encouraged to grow.


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