I begin with the question of authority. All preaching bases itself on an implied answer to the question of what constitutes the right authority for belief and practice. Every time a preacher steps into the pulpit, he demonstrates a stance toward the question of why his listeners should believe what he says.
After I have positioned myself in the Reformation tradition that views the Bible as the only final and reliable authority for faith and practice, I will consider what the Bible says about itself, asking these questions: What evidence is there within the Bible that requires us to view it as the supreme authority for belief and practice? What does the Bible ask us to believe about its nature and effects? What did Jesus and the apostles believe about Scripture?
I will then construct my defense of expository preaching on the primacy of the Word. In fact, I will claim that expository preaching is no more than practicing what we believe about the Bible. If the Bible is what it claims to be, and if everything that a preacher says from the pulpit is based on an assumed authority, then the only reliable path that preaching can take is to root itself thoroughly, not intermittently or by way of lip service, in the Bible.
The Heart of the Matter: The Question of Authority
Before I talk about the authority of the Bible, I need to address the question of authority itself. In its simplest terms, that question is this: on what basis do we, in a given situation, accept something as true? In a book that remains the best short treatment of the subject, J. I. Packer calls the problem of authority “the most fundamental problem that the Christian Church ever faces. This is because Christianity is built on truth.”
Within the Christian church, three alternative authorities have historically been advocated by individuals and groups. We can base Christian beliefs on (1) the Bible, (2) tradition, or (3) human reason. Packer labels these answers to the question of authority “the evangelical, the traditionalist and the subjectivist. Confessional Protestants give the first [answer]; Romanist, some Anglo-Catholics and Orthodox give the second; modern Liberal Protestants give the third” (Packer 47).
We need to clarify that no Christian bases everything that he or she believes on just one of these. The Bible, after all, requires interpretation, and our interpretations are influenced by the theological and exegetical traditions in which we have confidence. Furthermore, we all use our reason when interpreting the Bible.
The question is not whether all of these can play a part in understanding and proving our theological positions, for they obviously all play a role. The question of authority is rather a question of what is the final or ultimate authority for belief and conduct. Whenever the three authorities clash, everyone gives priority to one of the three.
[i] J. I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 42.
“Built into Christianity is a principle of authority. This is because Christianity is a revealed religion. It claims that God our Creator has acted to make known his mind and will, and therefore his revelation has authority for our lives.”—J. I. Packer, Truth and Power: The Place of Scripture in the Christian Life, 26
To raise the question of authority may seem a long way from the defense of expository preaching, but it is the necessary starting point. The preacher who stands in the pulpit expects his hearers to believe him on the basis of a stated or implied authority. Conversely, no one who stands in the pulpit can avoid incarnating his view of religious authority.
The Primacy of the Word
The Reformation established the principle of sola Scriptorum—Scripture alone as the final authority of belief and conduct. The Westminster Confession of Faith declared that “the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (1. 10).
Individual Reformers and Puritans perpetuated this view of the Bible as the ultimate authority for religious faith and practice. Here are four specimen statements from four national branches of the Reformation:
- “We affirm that we desire to follow Scripture alone as rule of faith and religion, without mixing with it any other thing which might be devised by the opinion of men apart from the Word of God, and without wishing to accept for our spiritual government any other doctrine than what is conveyed to us by the same Word without addition or diminution, according to the command of our Lord” (John Calvin).
- “All customs, no matter how good they are, must give way to the Word of God” (Martin Luther).
- “Pin not your faith upon men’s opinions; the Bible is the touchstone” (John Owen).
- “The rule according to which conscience is to proceed” is “what God has revealed in the Sacred Scriptures” (Cotton Mather).
Of course the fact that the Reformers said these things doesn’t make them true. The Reformers were merely codifying what they saw within the Bible itself, starting with the example of Jesus. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when he was tempted by Satan, the Savior’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Old Testament enabled him to defeat the tempter with three deft quotations from Deuteronomy (Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4;1-13; cf. Deuteronomy 8:3; 6:13, 16). In each of his retorts to Satan, Jesus used the formula “it is written” to signal his acceptance of the supreme of authority of the written Scripture that we know as the Old Testament. In fact, Jesus gave us the essential principle in its pure form: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4; cf. Deuteronomy 8:3). For both Moses and Jesus, the Scriptures were a metaphoric food necessary to life.
John Calvin, Genevan Confession of Faith, online (http://www.creeds.net/reformed/gnvconf.htm).
Martin Luther, address to the Diet at Augsburg, 1530, as quoted in What Luther Says: An Anthology, ed. Ewald M. Plass (St. Louis; Concordia, 1959), 3: 1181.
John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (London: Banner of Truth, 1966), 13: 40-41.
Cotton Mather, A Companion for Communicants, quoted in Allen Carden, “The Word of God in Puritan New England: Seventeenth-Century Perspectives on the Nature and Authority of the Bible,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 18 (Spring 1980): 1-16.
“Two facts alone were evident: there was the Bible, and there was himself; and all that remained to be done was for him to discover what were the Bible’s instructions, and to act accordingly. In order to make this discovery it was only necessary for him to read the Bible over and over again, and therefore, for the rest of his life, he did so.”—Lytton Strachey, The End of General Gordon.
Similar affirmation of the primacy of the Word characterized Jesus’ subsequent public ministry. Jesus did not appeal to human authority but either cited the Old Testament as an authority or spoke on his own divine authority. He himself “taught . . . as one who had authority” (Mark 1:22). “Heaven and earth will pass away,” Jesus said, “but my words will not pass away” (Mark 13:31). In Jesus’ Highly Priestly prayer addressed to the Father, Jesus said, “I have given them your word. . . . Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:14, 17). Jesus said such things as these about the written Word: “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5;18); “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35).
To believe in the supreme authority of the Bible is to believe neither more nor less than what Jesus believed. J. I Packer summarizes “Christ’s answer to the problem of authority” as follows: “1. The Old Testament is to be received on His authority (over and above its own witness to itself) as the authoritative written utterance of God, abidingly true and trustworthy…. 2. To learn what they must believe and do, His disciples are not to regard His words alone, but to take His teaching and the Old Testament together” (59).
“To preach is to open up the inspired text with such faithfulness and sensitivity that God’s voice is heard and God’s people obey him.”—John Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 208
To the testimony of Jesus regarding God’s written Word we can add the example and explicit statements of the apostles. The apostles repeatedly appealed to the Old Testament and to the words of Jesus as their authority. Regarding the Old Testament, Paul affirmed that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction” (Romans 15:4). The author of Hebrews repeatedly accompanies his quotations from the Old Testament with a formula to the effect that God spoke in these passages (e. g., 1:5, 6, 7, 8, 13). As with the Old Testament, so also with the words of Jesus: as Paul stood before the Ephesian elders, he admonished them to “remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said . . .” (Acts 20:35).
Additionally, the apostles who wrote the New Testament (along with Luke and Paul, whose writings are attested by the apostolic writers) were inspired to write the New Testament. The result is that what the apostles themselves wrote is authoritative Scripture. Jesus told his disciples, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). Elsewhere he told his disciples, “The one who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16). Furthermore, the apostles claimed authority as God’s spokesmen. Paul, for example, claimed on one occasion that “the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 14:37). Peter spoke of “the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles” (2 Peter 3:2).
Behind these claims for the reliability and authority of the Bible stands the process of inspiration by which the writers of the Bible produced their writings. Here are the two classic biblical passages on the subject of inspiration:
- “No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).
- “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16).
In addition, formulas that call the parts of the Bible the word or words of God, or those that speak of how “the word of the Lord came to me, saying… ,” occur hundreds of times. According to René Pache, who has written perhaps the best book on the authority and inspiration of the Bible, the authors of the Old Testament claim 3,808 times to be expressing the very words of God.
The additional idea that the Bible is infallible or without error is a logical inference that we can draw from its divine inspiration. If God directed the writers of the Bible in such a way as to guarantee that what the authors wrote was his own message, then the Bible must be without error.
René Pache, The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture, trans. Helen I. Needham (Chicago: Moody Press, 1969), 121.
“The only logical response to inerrant Scripture, then, is to preach it expositionally. . . . Stated simply, inerrancy demands exposition as the only method of preaching that preserves the purity of Scripture and accomplishes the purpose for which God gave us His Word.”—John MacArthur, Jr., Rediscovering Expository Preaching, 23-24.
To sum up, the Christian religion is one of the revealed religions of the world, meaning that it claims as its authority a book believed to be a reliable revelation from God. The authority for Christian belief is accordingly this revealed book, the Bible.
Additional Claims that the Bible Makes about Itself
Before I draw out the implications of the biblical authority for preaching, we can profitably broaden the scope and simply list some of the claims that the Bible makes for itself. I note in passing that the motif of the Bible’s comment on itself is pervasive. No other book makes so many claims about itself. If we simply accept the claims of biblical writers, we can state the following about the Bible:
- The Bible is God’s word and is thus more than a human book: “We also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
- The Bible is a guide that enables people to find their way through life: “Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).
- The Bible teaches the way of salvation: Paul wrote to Timothy, “from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15).
- The Bible is necessary to life itself: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
- The Bible is a source of blessing to those who read and obey its message: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it” (Revelation 1:3).
- The Bible should be accessible to us, not hidden from view: “For this commandment that I command you today is not . . . far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascent to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear and do it?’ But the word is very near you” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).
- The Bible is stable and enduring: “The word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8); “Heaven and earth will disappear, but my words will remain forever” (Mark 13:31).
What is the relevance of these claims to expository preaching? Simply this: if the Bible is all these things, how could we not make it the central focus of our sermons? Why would we allow the Bible to disappear from view on Sunday mornings? Why would we replace it with a dozen substitutes? It makes no sense to do these things. If the Bible is what it claims to be, it is dynamite.
Word and Spirit
According to the Bible, it was specifically the Holy Spirit who inspired the authors during the process of writing. Thus Paul writes regarding his message, “We impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:13). Peter’s famous formulation is that the prophets “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Before quoting from Psalm 110:1, Jesus ascribed the psalm to David, who wrote “in the Spirit” (Matthew 22:43). When the disciples met to name a successor to Judas Iscariot, Peter asserted that “the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David” (Acts 1:16; see also Hebrews 3:7).
An obvious conclusion is that the Bible itself is one means by which the Holy Spirit is present in the life of a Christian. Jesus said, “It is the Spirit who gives life. . . . The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). Where the Word of God is disseminated and believed, the Holy Spirit is present with his illumination and enlivening.
“The preaching of God’s holy word . . . is the ministry of the Spirit. In the hearing of it the Spirit is given. If we would have the Spirit, let us attend upon the ministry of the Spirit.”—Richard Sibbes, Beams of Divine Light
The implications of this for preaching are self-evident. For a preacher to lead his congregation to absorb the biblical text itself is to minister the Holy Spirit to them. As John Woodhouse comments, “Where there is the Word of God there is always the Spirit of God.” I again ask a rhetorical question: how could any preacher not wish to perform such a ministry? It is exposition of the Bible that looses the manifold work of the Spirit.
John Woodhouse, “The Preacher and the Living Word: Preaching and the Holy Spirit,” in When God’s Voice Is Heard, ed. David Jackman and Christopher Green (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1995), 55.
Expositional Preaching in the New Testament
In view of what I have said thus far, it is not surprising that the glimpses of preaching that we find in the New Testament show that preaching was originally expository in nature. I do not wish to overstate the case. There are few actual examples of sermons recorded in the New Testament. And of the examples that we find there, perhaps none meets the precise definition that I am advancing. This does not disprove that this model was not practiced; it only means that we do not find full-fledged examples of it.
With these provisos in place, there is nonetheless good reason to believe that in the early church the content of preaching was based on Scripture, thereby meeting the most important criterion for expository preaching. I will note in passing that the reading of Scripture in public worship is something that the Christian church took over from practices in the Jewish synagogue (Luke 4:16; Acts 15:21; 2 Corinthians 3:14). To the practice of reading from the Old Testament the early church added the reading of the apostolic letters and the Gospels (1 Thessalonians 5:27; Colossians 4:16; see also Revelation 1:3).
But what did the early Christian groups do in addition to reading Scripture publicly? Justin Martyr, writing just after the close of the first century, provides a revealing answer:
On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has finished, the president speaks, instructing and exhorting the people to imitate these good things.
This is highly instructive and significant. We note first that the Bible itself formed the starting point for the preaching service. The authority for what the preacher or leader said came from the Bible. The preaching was secondary to and derived from the reading of the Word. But we must also observe that the mere reading of the biblical text was not regarded as sufficient. Instead, what the preacher said by way of instruction and exhortation drew out and applied the meanings of the biblical text. What is this other than expository preaching?
Equally important is a key verse in the New Testament itself. Paul’s pastoral charge to Timothy included the exhortation that Timothy “devote [himself] to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). Here we find the pattern already noted—the reading of Scripture in public, followed by (we infer) exhortation and teaching that flowed out of the biblical text. We agree with John Stott’s commentary on this verse that “it was taken for granted from the beginning that Christian preaching would be expository preaching, that is, that all Christian instruction and exhortation would be drawn out of the passage which had been read.”
We can extrapolate similar pictures from other New Testament passages, though it is unclear whether the situations were sermons. For example, when Paul arrived in Thessalonica, he went to the synagogue “on three Sabbath days” and “reasoned with [the Jews] from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead” (Acts 17:2-3). Here we find the paradigm that we call expository preaching. The process starts with the assumption that the Bible is the authority for belief and therefore provides the content for the core ideas that the expositor proclaims. But the biblical text needs to be explained, and people need to be persuaded by exhortation. That the latter was true for Paul is implied in the follow-up comment that “some of them were persuaded” (Acts 17:4).
Quoted in John Stott, The Message of 1 Timothy and Titus (Downers Grove: InterVaristy, 1996), 121.
“While earlier preachers of Scripture gave both revelatory and explanatory messages, . . . as the New Testament era drew to a close, the work of biblical preachers became that of explanation only. . . . The preaching in the Bible mandates only one biblical response for the post-biblical age: Continue to explain and exposit the message now fully revealed (Heb. 1:1-13). All preaching must be expository preaching if it is to conform to the patterns of Scripture.”—James F. Stitzinger, “The History of Expository Preaching”
An Old Testament example of the same paradigm is the famous incident of Ezra’s reading of the Law of Moses as part of the reconstitution of worship in the restored community who returned from the exile. First “Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood” (Nehemiah 8:6). Then Ezra and others “read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Nehemiah 8:8). Here is the essential pattern: reading of the biblical text, accompanied by explanation of it and embracing of its truth by the listeners.
Thus far I have mainly adduced data from the Bible. I first viewed the Bible’s claims to be the only final authority for religious belief, behind which stands the inspiration of the authors of the Bible. Then I noted additional exhilarating and winsome claims that the Bible makes about itself, including the connection between Word and Spirit. Finally, I presented evidence that proclamation in biblical times and in the early church was understood to be an exposition and application of Scripture.
There is no need to belabor the implications for preaching, provided we accept as true what the Bible says about itself. For people who are not persuaded of the authority of the Bible, the case for expository preaching can scarcely avoid seeming weak. To be convinced of the desirability and need for expository preaching requires a conviction of the authority of the Bible and its effectiveness to bring about Christian belief and nurture.
But if you embrace as true what we have said about the Bible, endorsement of expository preaching should follow as a necessary consequence. If every sermon presupposes that the congregation will accept what is said on the basis of one authority or another, and if the Bible is the only completely reliable authority, then the Bible should be primary in the sermon. If the Bible’s powers and effects are what Scripture itself claims, it would be perverse to curtail those effects by making the Bible retreat from view in the pulpit. If the Bible is one of God’s authenticated means for infusing the Holy Spirit into a believer’s life, then a preacher would naturally want to make the Bible prominent in a sermon. And if the prescribed models for preaching in the Bible are expository in nature, there would be something defiant in ignoring those models.
At this point a disconcerting question arises: in view of the biblical data that I have adduced, how is it possible that evangelical preaching has undergone such a stampede away from expository preaching in the last hundred years? I speak of a great mystery. One possibility is that Bible-wielding preachers do not really believe in the sufficiency and potency of Scripture. If that is the case, we have an alarming spectacle of mere lip service when it comes to endorsing the evangelical view of Scripture.
It is possible for preachers to think that they accept the authority of the Bible, while not actually doing so. Such preachers need to “believe what they believe,” that is, live out their theoretic commitment to scriptural authority. Many preachers have a mindless assent to the authority of Scripture. They assent to what their evangelical subculture demands. They do not seriously disbelieve the sufficiency and power of Scripture, but neither to they seriously believe it.
“There are not strictly speaking several kinds of preaching (topical, expository, textual) or many kinds of sermons (doctrinal, lectionary, life situation, relational); there is only one, expositional. The only kind of preaching worthy of the name is that in which the truth of a Scripture text is explained and applied to the lives of the hearers. . . . What we who preach need most of all is a commitment to the biblical text.”—David Bast, “Why Preach?” [Quoted from Peter Adam, p. 119]
In other instances, preachers have lost their homiletical nerve. Such preachers may be convinced in their minds and hearts that they should make the Bible central in their actual sermons, while at the same time succumbing either to cultural pressures or to homiletic fashions. Postmodernism has convinced many preachers that people connect with inner-directed subjective experience and find reasoned explication of written text too taxing. Or they may have heard too much about “the pastness of the past” and forgotten that the Bible is a timeless book that still speaks the message of its divine author.
Whatever the causes of the abandonment of the Bible as the central ingredient of preaching, the cure is to embrace and practice what the Bible itself asserts. What it asserts can be summarized in this way: (1) the Bible is the only completely reliable authority for religious belief and practice; (2) the Bible is God’s Word to people and a means by which the Holy Spirit teaches and empowers believers; (3) preaching in the original Christian church was expository in nature.
1 J. I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 42.
2 John Calvin, Genevan Confession of Faith, online (http://www.creeds.net/reformed/gnvconf.htm).
3 Martin Luther, address to the Diet at Augsburg, 1530, as quoted in What Luther Says: An Anthology, ed. Ewald M. Plass (St. Louis; Concordia, 1959), 3: 1181.
4 John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (London: Banner of Truth, 1966), 13: 40-41.
5 Cotton Mather, A Companion for Communicants, quoted in Allen Carden, “The Word of God in Puritan New England: Seventeenth-Century Perspectives on the Nature and Authority of the Bible,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 18 (Spring 1980): 1-16.
6 René Pache, The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture, trans. Helen I. Needham (Chicago: Moody Press, 1969), 121.
7 John Woodhouse, “The Preacher and the Living Word: Preaching and the Holy Spirit,” in When God’s Voice Is Heard, ed. David Jackman and Christopher Green (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1995), 55.
8 Quoted in John Stott, The Message of 1 Timothy and Titus (Downers Grove: InterVaristy, 1996), 121.
9 Stott, 122.