Clearing Some of the Fog on Expositional Preaching

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In my past attempts to advocate for expositional (aka expository) preaching, I came to realize that what I meant by “expositional” was not what many people heard. In any conversation, there is bound to be confusion and controversy when we fail to clearly define our terms. This article is an attempt to clear some of the fog.

Setting Forth the Meaning of Scripture

When I talk about expositional preaching, my concern is for Paul’s standard in 2 Timothy 4:2: “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”

We know that “the word” refers specifically to “the Scriptures” because the command follows 2 Timothy 3:16–17: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” It is because Scripture is profitable for teaching that we should “preach the word … with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). It is because Scripture is profitable for reproof that we should “preach the word; …  reprove.” And so on.

Paul calls Timothy to proclaim and set forth the meaning of Scripture so that his hearers walk away with a better understanding of what God’s word actually teaches and what it requires of them in their daily lives. This is all that I mean by expositional preaching. The word “exposition” simply means “setting forth of the meaning or purpose.” Expositional preachers aim to set forth the meaning of God’s word, allowing the text of Scripture—not their own opinions or life experiences—to drive and shape their sermons.

“They Expound the Scriptures”

This is what early Christian preachers understood themselves to be doing. In the second century, Irenaeus describes how faithful presbyters (elders/pastors) hold fast to the apostolic teaching: “they expound the Scriptures to us” (AH 4.26.5). Most early Christian preaching seems to have been as simple as reading a sizable portion of Scripture, then explaining it and applying it, following the common practice of the synagogues as exemplified by Jesus in Luke 4. In his First Apology, Justin Martyr gives one of the earliest accounts of the weekly worship of the Christians:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and [1] the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, [2] the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.

Like Ezra in Nehemiah 8:8, the early Christian pastors “read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” This is a reasonable norm for how New Testament pastor-teachers should “preach the word”: read the Book, give the sense—that is, expound or set forth the meaning by carefully dividing the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15)—and apply it to the unique context, offering reproof and rebuke as needed.

Unfortunately, however, some have read a book like Haddon Robinson’s Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages and walked away with the impression that expositional preaching is a painstaking method. But Robison himself says, “Expository preaching at its core is more a philosophy than a method. Whether or not we can be called expositors starts with our purpose and with our honest answer to the question: ‘Do you, as a preacher, endeavor to bend your thought to the Scriptures, or do you use the Scriptures to support your thought?’” (emphasis added).

Expositional Preaching Can Be Topical

There are many ways, then, to preach expositionally. The most common and arguably the most effective way is to work through entire books of the Bible, one passage at a time. This allows God’s word to set the priorities, raise subjects that would otherwise be overlooked, and hold the preacher responsible to preach verses in context. However, not all expositional preaching needs to be book-by-book or passage-by-passage, let alone verse-by-verse. No single method—especially not a complicated, multi-step process like that of Robinson—should be equated with expositional preaching.

While some people hear “expositional preaching” and think “the opposite of topical preaching,” that is not how most serious advocates of expositional preaching use the term.

While some people hear “expositional preaching” and think “the opposite of topical preaching,” that is not how most serious advocates of expositional preaching use the term. A sermon can be “topical” and still be expositional as long as it faithfully sets forth the meaning of Scripture. John Stott explains,

Exposition refers to the content of the sermon (biblical truth) rather than its style (a running commentary). To expound Scripture is to bring out of the text what is there and expose it to view. The expositor opens what appears to be closed, makes plain what is obscure, unravels what is knotted, and unfolds what is tightly packed.

For example, if I preach on the topic of modesty by carefully setting forth the meaning of various passages of Scripture in a way that is faithful to their biblical context, my sermon is expositional. However, if I simply read a Bible verse out of context, then jump into a litany of assertions about modesty based on my opinions, personal anecdotes, traditional distinctives, or observations about culture, my sermon is not expositional. It falls short of the standard laid down in 2 Timothy 4:2 and lacks the authority of the word rightly divided (2 Tim. 2:15). That is the real problem—not that it fails to line up with someone’s preferred method of preaching.

What Advocates of Expositional Preaching Are Against

What strong advocates of expositional preaching are usually reacting against is a kind of preaching that is just not very biblical or theologically well-informed. It may have a clever, three-point alliterated outline. It may be full of engaging stories and illustrations. It may make some strong and forceful claims on the lives of its listeners. It may even sound “anointed.” But it is carelessly, not carefully, handling the word of truth (2 Tim. 4:12). God’s people are not being fed with the meat of God’s word. The church is not being led deeper into the whole counsel of God.

David Helm quips, “Some preachers use the Bible the way a drunk uses a lamp post … more for support than for illumination.” Bible verses are sometimes used like sprinkles to top an ice cream sundae that they have whipped up with very little study or theological reflection. Others use the Bible as a diving board, turning to a single verse so that they can jump off into the sermon they’ve prepared. Even if they have the congregation “stand in reverence to God’s word,” they are treating God’s word with irreverence by preaching a sermon that is almost entirely disconnected from it.. I once attended a service where a preacher turned to a verse, read one word, then audaciously admitted, “My sermon has nothing to do with this passage, but I’m going to use this word as a jumping off point.”

What strong advocates of expositional preaching are usually reacting against is a kind of preaching that is just not very biblical or theologically well-informed.

A congregation that feeds on this kind of preaching is likely to be “unskilled in the word of righteousness” (Heb. 5:13), since most of Scripture is not actually being explained and applied to them. In turn, they will be marked by confusion about what they believe and especially why they believe it. They will struggle to demonstrate their beliefs from the text of Scripture.

The desire of any Bible-loving preacher is to see God’s word shape the life of the church. Expositional preaching expresses that passion by modeling in the sermon itself careful attention to the words of Scripture. We want pastor-teachers to do their job by carefully handling the word and faithfully declaring the whole counsel of God, since only God’s word has power to make dead men live and transform them into the image of Christ. Better discipleship begins in the pulpit.

Moving Forward From Here

For those who are convinced of the need for expositional preaching, my main suggestion—besides better defining terms—is to start modeling it. I once spent several solid days reading and writing on expositional preaching, then trashed almost everything I had produced. My studies convinced me that our greatest need is for more examples, since expositional preaching is often better caught than taught. Every expositional preacher that I know began preaching expositionally because they listened to someone who did it well.

There is a reason why so many people are captivated by the preaching of John Piper, Allister Begg, and men like them. People are hungry for the meat of the word. They want to be guided along in their understanding of what God actually says in the text of Scripture. Simply modeling expositional preaching in our circle of influence will probably go further in the long term than yelling at people about why they’re doing it wrong or trying to convince them that exposition is not actually boring. (It’s not! It makes as much “practical” application as any other kind of sermon, it just grounds its application in what God actually says.) I’m personally grateful for the example of men like Nathan Purdy, David Fry, and Allan Brown.

If we model good exposition, it will eventually win the hour. As serious Christians grow, they begin to desire meat instead of milk. They become burnt out on preaching that relies on shouting as a substitute for substance. Let’s be preachers of substance. Let’s set forth the word of God. Let’s expound the Scriptures. As R. S. Taylor said,

To preach expository sermons well is much more challenging, but equally more rewarding. Traditionally, such preaching has been especially effective in producing Bible-loving and Bible-carrying Christians. The cause of holiness would be greatly enhanced by the rise among us of great expositors—even halfway greatness would be a boon, if it took place in a large enough number of pulpits.

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.