Theology Thursday: What is Expository Preaching?

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.

Review: Saving Eutychus

Saving Eutychus Cover

I begin writing this review having spent one tedious hour working on the opening illustration to my sermon last Sunday (while juggling whether I really nailed the big idea and big question). I’ve been at the work of preaching for just over a year, and I’m privileged and very thankful to be working with friend and mentor Ben Ho.

I should also start this review where my friend Nathan Campbell started: a disclaimer. Gary Millar is a friend and principal of the college I attended, Queensland Theological College. Phil Campbell is also another friend who taught me preaching while at QTC. So I can’t say that my review will be completely impartial, but I don’t think it matters that much.

To the book.

Saving Eutychus gets its nifty title (partly inspired by Nathan’s blog) from the little incident in Acts 20. It’s Paul’s final evening with in Troas and he’s probably pretty keen to impart as much teaching as possible – even going way into the evening. By around midnight Eutychus, who was listening in, struggles to stay awake and ends up falling asleep. On a window sill. Three stories up.  As Phil jokes, with a little apostolic first aid, the young man’s ‘terminal velocity’ wasn’t as terminal as it could have been.

But Phil outlines the problem this story highlights for the average preacher, “…what took Paul many hours of speaking to achieve—near-fatal napping—takes most of us only a few minutes speaking to a well-rested and caffeinated crowd on a Sunday.

So true.

I’ve seen the droopy heads. I’ve seen the glazed eyes. Every so often I can grab everyone’s attention with an illustration only to lose it again as soon as I begin talking about the text for the morning.

I find preaching really hard work. So I was both encouraged and deflated by the opening lines to this book, “Preaching is hard work. And—we’re sorry to break this to you if you’re just starting out—it doesn’t seem to get much easier.

Deflated, yes. But the rest of the book serves up some real encouragements and challenges.

As a young preacher struggling to find a groove in my preparation and ‘performance’ this was a most timely book. But as I read through it became clear that this book isn’t just pitching at the young preacher, but essentially at any preacher who is genuinely, and humbly, seeking to improve their craft. Preaching is deadly serious business and should be afforded the appropriate amount of time for preparation. Gary puts the weight of the task in this way:

“I want to know that God has addressed me through his word. I want to be challenged, humbled, corrected, excited, moved, strengthened, overawed, corrected, shaped, stretched and propelled out into the world as a different person. I want to be changed! And if I’m the one who’s teaching the Bible—whether it’s to my children, to our students in college, to our church family in Brisbane, or to anybody else—I long for that change to happen in the hearts of those who hear. I long for Jane to find new security in Christ, and for Rob to discover real joy in following Jesus. I want Ian to stop doing that because he realizes it is dishonouring God, and I want everyone to be bowled over by the power and beauty of God. I want people (myself included) to become more like Christ. To borrow Edwards’ language, I want people to be affected. I want to preach in a way that results in change. Real change. Heart change.”

Real change in the lives of believers isn’t just for their benefit, but also taps into God’s purposes to make known his glory to this world.

It’s at this point that Gary impresses upon the reader that expository preaching is the best form of preaching to accomplish this grand purpose. I found myself fist-punching the air a number of times, especially during Gary’s 8 advantages of expository preaching. However I felt like this could have been teased out a little more. Perhaps not so much as to be preaching to the choir, but I would have appreciated a little more given the state of some choirs…

Gary’s chapter on preaching the gospel from the Old Testament is also very helpful. Prior to the start of my ministry apprenticeship I grew up on a diet of very poorly taught Old Testament sermons. There is enough in this chapter to whet the appetite, and enough references to do further reading.

And that’s one of the great strengths of this book overall. It’s both encouraging and challenging. It sympathises with the weakness of the preacher who is reading, while at the same time pointing them forward, with hope (!), to a better future.

Phil’s top ten tips in chapter 3 bring back a lot of memories. There’s plenty there, as well as some helpful website links to gauge sentence length. It’s a very Phil chapter.

But probably the most heart-warming, or at least to me, chapters was Gary’s on ‘Faithful Wounds: the importance of critique’. Gary steps through the importance of faithful constructive criticism to grow our preaching. In this regard my partner in ministry, Ben Ho, has been a faithful friend. Particularly as a young Gen-Yer, who finds it difficult to separate my performance from my personhood (as is a general flaw of Gen-Y and Millenials), Ben has faithfully walked me through each of my sermons, shown the strengths and the weaknesses and has encouraged me along. The wounds of a friend are faithful indeed.

This book is not just for the young preacher, though this young preacher benefited from it greatly.  It’s not even just for the old preacher. But anyone who wants a glimpse at the process of crafting a sermon. I know some preachers who would benefit from this book greatly. I also know plenty of sermon listeners who could do with reading this book, if only to be better listeners.

This is a great book. The message to preach clearly with simplicity for maximum gospel punch is given clearly and with simplicity. What’s more is that each chapter is fairly personal. Gary’s chapters are very Gary. Phil’s chapters are very Phil. I felt like I wasn’t reading a how-to book on preaching, but was sitting in a bar, chewing the fat and listening to two of my favourite preachers chat about their craft.

Saving Eutychus will be available from Matthias Media towards the end of March/early April.

Saving Eutychus: Preview

My favourite quotes so far…

Preaching is hard work. And—we’re sorry to break this to you if you’re just starting out—it doesn’t seem to get much easier. – Gary & Phil

The night Eutychus struggled to stay awake was Paul’s last among them, and there was a lot he wanted to teach them. Paul couldn’t catch a later flight and prolong his stay; he had to keep talking. But the humbling point we want to make is that what took Paul many hours of speaking to achieve—near-fatal napping—takes most of us only a few minutes speaking to a well-rested and caffeinated crowd on a Sunday. – Phil

Where God is explaining something, we need to help people to understand. Where God is warning us, we need to help people feel the urgency and weight of that. Where God is wooing us, we need to help people feel the pull of his love. Where God is correcting us, we need to show people that they are going the wrong way and to help them get back on track. Where God is comforting his people, we want people to feel the security and warmth of his comfort. And that, in a nutshell, is expository preaching. – Gary

Our contention is that the Bible itself preaches to the heart. Through a huge range of genres across the sweep of biblical history, through the voices of known and unknown authors, God speaks to move and change people.

Expository preaching, then, isn’t simply one technique or approach amongst many; it’s the model that allows Scripture to speak most clearly and powerfully. The key to preaching in a way that affects people’s hearts is to let the text speak in all its richness and variety. – Gary