The Benefits of Expository Preaching

In another article, I noted that expository preaching is not allegiance to a particular method but rather a deep-seated attitude towards the text of Scripture. At its core, expository preaching is about confronting people with the plain meaning of the Biblical text. The text is interpreted in light of the past and applied in light of the present. The expositor preaches in such a way that if Moses or Jesus or Paul were in the audience, he would say “that is exactly what I was trying to say in that passage.” The expositor studies a text of Scripture in its original context, is burdened by the weight of its relevance, and enters the pulpit to declare “Thus saith the Lord.” Having seen the glory of God in the Bible, the preacher is able to impress on people a sense of God’s presence.

There are several significant benefits to expository preaching.

Expository preaching is grounded in the inerrancy and absolute authority of God’s Word.

The expositor understands that his most creative, fascinating, audience-gripping ideas cannot rival the power of the God-breathed Word (2 Timothy 3:16) simply explained and applied. Expository preaching is making claim to people’s lives by pointing to what is right there in front of them in the Bible—shedding light on the text of Scripture itself. In turn, the Word of God does the work of God in the hearts and minds of the listeners.

We have no power apart from the Word of God—the Word has its own power (Hebrews 4:12). The God-breathed Word is our only authority as ministers. Haddon Robinson points to this as the main argument for expository preaching: “when [ministers] fail to preach the Scriptures, they abandon their authority…the type of preaching that best carries the force of divine authority is expository preaching.”

Expository preaching starts with the ideas of the Bible, not the ideas of the preacher.

When a preacher reads a single verse and goes on to bare his heart, sharing various thoughts that do not directly relate to the text, it is as though he says, “now that we’ve read the Bible, let me share my sermon.” The implication should make us cringe! G. Campbell Morgan rightly says, “The sermon,” properly so-called, “is the text repeated more fully.”

Expository preaching demands that all of one’s thoughts are shaped by the text. The passage at hand is not just the launching point for the preacher’s thoughts. The passage at hand is the sermon. The main point that we communicate to the audience must be the main point of the passage. The Bible text that we exposit forms the boundaries for what we say.

Young preachers are often told, “Wait ’til you have to preach three sermons each week. You will struggle to find sermon ideas.” How unsettling. If we start with the Bible, how could we ever run out of ideas? The Scripture is a mine that can never be exhausted. The only way that a preacher runs out of ideas is if he is trying to think up ideas and turn to the Bible for support. If we approach the Scriptures with an idea in mind, we will almost certainly bend the Scriptures to our thoughts. The humble preacher recognizes that he is a learner first, in need of bending his thoughts to the Scriptures. Expository preaching requires that we go to the Bible first, often shattering our preconceived notions altogether.

If we preached expository sermons, we would never again wonder what to preach. We would never joke about a clever idea, “That’ll preach!” because we would know that the Bible will always preach. We would simply choose a passage and set out on a journey to discover God’s life-changing meaning. This does not close the door for the Holy Spirit to lead us to a particular text; rather, it promotes the normal way the Holy Spirit works: through God’s intended meaning in God’s provided Bible.

Charles Koller puts it this way:

Unless the Scriptures constitute the basis for all the structural elements of a sermon and unless the expositor labors diligently in the context of each of the texts he cites, a sermon will inevitably lack the power of the Word of Truth rightly divided, and hearers will be misled, both in the substance of what is taught and in the example of Bible study methodology. The preacher must lead his people into the text, not away from it.

Expository preaching is uncommonly deepening.

As a preacher explores God’s meaning in a passage, it changes him deeply and in turn he is able to confront others with the same life-changing message. This level of engagement with the Word of God has an unparalleled effect on the body of Christ. Climbing higher on the mountain of the Word opens new vistas of spiritual growth.

Discovering God’s meaning in God’s text is hard work and requires all of the resources at our disposal. In fact, expository preaching is some of the hardest work that you will ever do. It often involves many extra hours of preparatory work. But the hard work of exposition is worth the fruit it produces. The long-term, practical difference is between meeting or neglecting the needs of the people in the pew.

Expository preaching is uncommonly gripping.

If you think that expository preaching is boring, there are only two possible explanations: (1) you’ve heard poor expository preaching, or (2) you haven’t heard expository preaching at all. Expository preaching is Bible preaching, and there is nothing boring about the Bible.

I’ve watched people sit up on the edge of their seats as a mystery of the Word is unveiled before their eyes, a misunderstood passage is interpreted properly, or an obscure text is shown to be supremely relevant and “profitable” (2 Timothy 3:16) to their lives. As this mystery-revealing, text-explaining, life-relevant message is enflamed by the Spirit’s unction, dead men are made to live and saints are pressed to new depths. My favorite preachers are always expository preachers. Anyone can holler; few can unravel the glories of the Bible.

Expository preaching covers the whole scope of Christian teaching.

Some topical preachers cover a large variety of teachings; however, they inevitably have holes in their theology and thus produce a hole-y people. George Muller noted:

Expounding large portions of the Word, such as an entire gospel or epistle, leads the [preacher] to consider portions of the Word which he might otherwise overlook. This keeps him from speaking too much on favorite subjects and leaning too much to particular parts of truth—a tendency which will surely sooner or later injure both himself and his hearers.

If a preacher has given little attention to eschatology, spiritual gifts, or judgment according to works, he will almost certainly never choose to preach on those topics. But, if he is preaching through the books of 1 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, or Romans, he will be forced to explore God’s revelation on these matters. Preaching through large portions of the Bible forces us to explore more deeply the implications of overlooked doctrines like the ascension, the Priesthood of Christ, and the physical resurrection of believers. God has a lot to say about these truths in His Word, and as preachers, we have a responsibility to expound on them.

Expository preaching results in a Bible-loving people.

As the expositor explains and applies the meaning of a Bible passage, people’s reaction is “Wow! I can’t believe that I didn’t see that; but, now that I do, I will never be able to unsee it.” Muller also observed that expository preaching “opens the Scriptures to [the congregation] and creates in them a desire to meditate for themselves. When they again read over the portion of the Word which has been expounded, they will remember what has been said. Thus, it leaves a more lasting impression on their minds.”

Consequently, he observes that expository preaching “encourages the congregation to bring their Bibles to church.” When people expect to actually look at the Book, they will bring their Bibles. Since most preachers rarely spend more than a minute in the text, most people do not bring their Bibles. The fault is ours. Expository preaching results in a people who love and understand the whole Bible.

Expository preaching grounds people in the centrality of Christ.

Since every text of Scripture is to be exposited in its context, every text of Scripture is to be shown in its ultimate context: the whole Bible. Since the whole Bible points to Jesus, every expository sermon points us to Him.

Nothing could have been more intriguing than when Jesus, “beginning at Moses and all the prophets, expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Expository preachers aim to do the same by expounding every passage of Scripture so that “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” is clearly displayed (2 Corinthians 4:6).

Expository preaching is transformative, not just informative.

According to 1 Corinthians 1:21, “it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” Therefore, our understanding of preaching must be firstly concerned with saving souls. Thomas Cook writes, “The preacher has more to do than to furnish the mind with facts. He has to appeal to the conscience, to touch the heart, to capture the will, and change the whole course of life.”

What better way to appeal to the conscience, touch the heart, capture the will, and change the whole course of life than by confronting men with the plain meaning of God’s message in the text of Scripture?

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12-13)

Because the Bible is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16), the most powerful messages are God’s messages from God’s Book.

[A preacher is] a man with a horn to his lips, through which he proclaims the message from the King which means life or death to those who hear it…God has called him to be His spokesman — to publish the command on which hangs the eternal destiny of those who are reached by the sound of his voice…His soul should glow and quiver under the tremendous burden of his message, until, like an irrepressible fire or flood, it must have vent somewhere. (Cook)

Feeling the weightiness of his charge, the expositor falls back on the text of Scripture as he calls men to repentance and faith, knowing that the Holy Spirit will empower his words insofar as they are the words of God. The expositor presses people to encounter God in the Scriptures He has provided for our transformation. Expository preaching, reliant on the unction of the Spirit, is capable of saving souls.

Expository preaching does not have the same disadvantages as topical preaching.

Many pastors spend hours each week trying to think up or pray through on a topic. Spurgeon himself admitted the weakness in this method when he said, “I confess that I frequently sit hour after hour praying and waiting for a subject, and that this is the main part of my study.” The sermons of this kind of preacher are sincere and occasionally his clever outlines are remembered, but the gaps in his pulpit ministry are obvious.

J. I. Packer makes a compelling argument against topical preaching:

In a topical sermon the text is reduced to a peg on which the speaker hangs his line of thought; the shape and thrust of the message reflect his own best notions of what is good for people rather than being determined by the text itself…topical discourses of this kind, no matter how biblical their component parts, cannot but fall short of being preaching in the full sense of that word, just because their biblical content is made to appear as part of the speaker’s own wisdom.

Even if you do not agree completely with Packer’s convictions, there are obvious deficiencies in a steady diet of topical preaching. Even if the broad range of Bible doctrines are covered in a topical ministry, the hearers have a shallow understanding of the actual texts of Scripture and no understanding of how to interpret them. The saints tend to more closely resemble their pastor with his whims, weaknesses, and personal convictions. The whole Bible is needed to form a whole Christian.

John MacArthur notes that “from our weakened exposition and our superficial topical talks we have produced a generation of Christian sheep having no shepherd.” He adds, “We must not get in the way, but rather allow our texts to ‘preach’ themselves.”