Why the Contemporary Church Needs Expository Preaching

A companion to this essay focuses on expository preaching as something toward which the authority of the Bible naturally and logically inclines us.  We might call this the inner logic of expository preaching, quite apart from pragmatic considerations of its effects.  The very authority of the Bible makes a case for expository preaching.  The current essay is outward looking, as I place expository preaching into the broader context of the church and survey the reasons why the contemporary church needs expository preaching.

These reasons fall into two complementary categories, which can loosely be called the positive and negative arguments.  Positively, the church needs expository preaching because of the results that flow from it.  Negatively, the church needs expository preaching because of the deficiencies that set in when it is abandoned.

I need to disavow from the start that the question of the right kind of preaching can be settled by criteria of external success.  All types of preaching, including both true and false preaching, have had statistical successes as well as failures.  Further, if external numbers do not prove the goodness or inferiority of a given type of preaching, neither do we possess the instruments by which to measure the quality of spiritual responses produced in the souls and lives of church attenders by various types of preaching.  We have accordingly made no attempts to buttress our case for expository preaching with empirical research.

“Living and Active:” The Bible’s Claims for Its Effects

I need to begin with the Bible itself.  The case for expository preaching rests on the centrality of the Bible in the Christian life.  My emphasis in the companion essay is the authority of the Bible.  As I turn our attention to the role of expository preaching in the church, the focus becomes the effect of the Bible in the lives of those who open themselves to contact with it.

The Bible is “the light to our paths, the key of the kingdom of heaven, our comfort in affliction, our shield and sword against Satan, the school of all wisdom, the [mirror] in which we behold God’s face, the testimony of his favor, and the only food and nourishment of our souls.”—Preface to The Geneva Bible

If the Bible itself can be trusted to tell us what we need to know about its authority, we can also turn to it to learn about its power and effects in the lives of those who have exposure to it.  Below is a primer on what the Bible promises to produce in the lives of people who assimilate it and are receptive to its influence:

  • The Bible is living and active in a Christian’s life: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12).
  • The Bible equips Christians for godly living: “All Scripture is . . . profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
  • God’s word is the means by which God accomplishes his purposes in the world: “my word . . .  shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).
  • The word of God is the means by which people can be blessed: “Blessed . . . are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28).
  • The Bible is one means by which God works within a believer’s life: “And we also thank God . . . that when you received the word of God, . . . you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
  • The word of God gives spiritual and emotional life: “I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have given me life” (Psalm 119:93).
  • For a summary statement, we can do no better than Psalm 19:7-8:

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes.

The relevance of these claims to expository preaching is obvious:  if the Bible can do all of these things in the lives of those who have contact with it, it stands to reason that preaching that foregrounds the Bible and interacts with it at a significant level will have the effects that we want in our sermons.

Related to this is the link that the Bible itself forges between God’s word and the work of the Holy Spirit.  If the Bible was inspired by God’s Holy Spirit (1 Peter 1:21), if the words of Jesus “are spirit and life” (John 6:63), and if the Spirit guided the apostolic writers of the New Testament “into all the truth” (John 16:13), it is a safe inference that contact with the Bible is one means by which the Holy Spirit works in the lives of individuals and churches.  Galatians 6:17 claims that “the sword of the Spirit” is nothing other than “the word of God.”  In his excellent book on the subject, Yves M. J. Congar writes that Scripture, “from Genesis to Revelation, that is, from the first to the last verse, bears witness to the intimate connection between the word and the Spirit.”

“The fact that the Spirit of God and the Word of God are intimately related in the Bible has been widely recognized, and has had an important place in theological understanding.  Certainly it was important for Luther and Calvin in the Reformation period.  But . . . it is not a distinctly Protestant theme in theology; the link between the two is too obvious in Scripture for that.”—John Woodhouse, “The Preacher and the Living Word,” 46.

Because of the close connection between the preaching of the word and the work of the Holy Spirit, good expository preaching has a sacramental quality to it in the sense of being a means of grace by which the presence of God is powerfully experienced in ways beyond the ordinary.  When preaching took Europe by storm during the Reformation (especially in Puritan England), it was experienced as having the power to make God’s presence real in ways analogous to the sacrament of communion.

Someone has said in this regard that “the commentaries of Luther and Calvin demonstrate how they believe Christ to be ‘in’ the biblical narrative. . . .   Their commentary reveals the core of puritan experience for the next several centuries:  the conviction that . . . one encountered the Real Presence in biblical promise. . . .  The central emphasis upon grace by ‘hearing’ divine words remained remarkably constant.”  Yves Congar asserts in a similar vein that “in the case of the preached Word, there is a degree of sacramentality. . . .  This experience is common to most faithful Christians.  It is an exchange or banquet at which our living faithfulness nourishes truth and truth nourishes our living faithfulness.”

The application that we can make is that preaching that leads a listener into an in-depth experience of a passage from the Bible is a means of grace.  In turn, the kind of preaching that meets the criterion of in-depth experience of a biblical passage is expository preaching.

George B. Christopher, Milton and the Science of the Saints (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1982), 12.

Çongar, 25-26.  In context, Congar applies this principle to both reading and preaching of the Word.

How Preaching Sets the Tone for What Happens in a Church

At this point it is natural to be thinking to ourselves that the Bible’s claims about its power in the lives of believers say nothing specifically about preaching;  its effects could as well come from private reading of the Bible, study of the Bible with others, or reading religious books that incorporate biblical data.  That is correct:  contact with the Bible in any form can produce the blessings and effects that the Bible claims for itself.  But there are good reasons for concluding that the preaching of the Bible is of primary importance in leading church members to experience the Bible at a deep level.

The formative effect of expository preaching on a congregation.

We need to begin by realizing the determinative effect that preaching (or lack of it) exercises on the life of a congregation during the week.  What a preacher does or fails to do from the pulpit provides a model for what goes on in the daily routines of individuals and families.  If preachers show by their example that they believe that the Bible is central to the life of faith, their parishioners are much more likely to regard the Bible in the same way.  Conversely, if preachers show by their example that the Bible is peripheral to their preaching, their congregations are likely to regard the Bible as either optional or superfluous to their interests.

It is true that the history of the church is replete with examples of individual Christians or small groups who turned to Bible reading and study out of sheer desperation when faced with a famine of the word from the pulpit.  It is possible for Christians to maintain contact with the Bible even when deprived of it in public worship at their church.

But two questions arise:  (1) What percentage of churchgoers have the inner drive and resources to seek out contact with the Bible as a solution to the problem of sermons that are deficient in Bible content?  (2) Even if individual Christians can compensate for what is lacking in the sermons that they hear, is this the ideal toward which we should aspire?   It would seem rather that our sermons should serve as the incentive and model for incorporating the Bible into our lives.

“Expository preaching familiarizes people with the Scripture itself. . . .  [Expository preaching gives] people the Word of God in a way that has long-term impact, because it makes them familiar with Scripture.”—John MacArthur, “Expository Preaching in a Postmodern World”

The superior quality of one’s encounter with the Bible in a good expository sermon.

In addition to the need for expository preaching to set a standard for viewing the Bible as being important in the Christian life, expository sermons represent a higher quality of encountering a Bible passage than does a mere reading of a Bible passage.  This is true in multiple ways.

Think first about the greater length of time that people spend when listening to a 30-minute sermon as compared to a five-minute reading of a passage in personal or family devotions.  Secondly, the analytic depth with which preachers are able to treat a biblical passage far exceeds anything that laypeople are likely to find anywhere else.  After all, a seminary-educated preacher has a knowledge of the original text of the Bible and is trained in hermeneutical principles that make him expert in unfolding the form and meaning of a Bible passage.  Preachers are also able to spend a major block of time in studying the passage of a sermon, and as part of this preparation to learn from the insights of Bible commentaries.

The expository preacher not only models that the Bible is central to Christian understanding and living.  He also presents the word at a superior level of insight, showing his listeners not only how the Bible is central to them but also modeling how the Bible should be read and pondered.

The expository preacher as methodological model.

There is one more way in which expository preaching from the pulpit influences the general tenor of how the Bible is handled in the daily lives of churchgoers.  If an expository preacher “rightly [handles] the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15), over a course of time churchgoers assimilate the right methods of reading and teaching the Bible.  If a preacher demonstrates on Sunday how to apply the following principles of textual analysis, listeners gradually develop a knack for doing the same things in their devotional and family Bible reading and in their teaching of the Bible:

  • determining the sequential organization of a Bible passage, thereby grasping its unity;
  • discerning how the individual parts of the passage relate to the whole, thereby highlighting the coherence of the passage;
  • paying close attention to the words and details of a passage;
  • interacting with a passage in terms of its genre (type of writing);
  • extracting general themes or principles from a passage and applying them to life.

Where is the average churchgoer likely to pick up these skills other than from the exposition of a preacher?  Probably nowhere.

A touchstone for churchgoers to judge the adequacy of how speakers, teachers, and writers handle the Bible.

If the model provided by an expository preacher thus helps parishioners handle the Bible accurately themselves, it offers an important further benefit as well:  it safeguards church members from fraudulent forms of teaching and preaching as they encounter them on television or the radio, in Bible studies, or in reading.  If people do not know what constitutes accurate exposition of the Bible, they are ready prey to aberrations.  There is nothing snobbish about insisting on high standards for how the Bible is interpreted.  Not to insist on accuracy and depth of insight is to default on how we deal with God’s word.  It is a commendation of an expository preacher when his preaching prompts his parishioners to be dissatisfied when they encounter shallow or inaccurate interpretation of the Bible.

Additional Benefits of Expository Preaching

The positive case for why the contemporary church needs expository preaching rests partly on the effects that flow from the powerful presence of the Bible in a Christian’s life, and partly on the formative influence that expository preaching can exert on a churchgoer’s ability to handle and receive the Bible in situations beyond the Sunday service.  There are additional effects of expository preaching that strengthen the case for it.

One of these is the effect of expository preaching on the preacher who practices it.  The preacher who immerses himself in the study of the Bible as he prepares his sermons at once becomes a candidate to receive the benefits that the Bible claims for itself.  This is more than a personal spiritual benefit for the preacher.  Jesus said that learners do not surpass their masters but become like them (Matthew 10:24-25; Luke 6:40).  The corollary for churches is that congregations are unlikely to rise higher than their preachers.

The advantages of expository preaching:  (1) It insures a better knowledge of the Bible on the part of both preacher and hearers.  (2) It results in sermons that contain more of the direct truth of Scripture and biblical modes of viewing things.  (3) It leads preachers to acquaint churchgoers with many passages in the Bible that would otherwise go unnoticed.  (4) It allows a preacher to assert truths that, if they were not rooted in the Bible, might be passed off as offensive or simply the personal view of the preacher.—Adapted from James W. Alexander, Thoughts on Preaching (1864).

Where expository preaching is done well, congregations find themselves nurtured spiritually and exhilarated by the preaching that occurs from the pulpit.  When expository preaching replaces other alternatives, it revitalizes church life.  For people who have developed a taste for expository preaching by having been exposed to it, no other kind of preaching measures up over the long haul.  What C. S. Lewis said about a literary classic fits expository preaching as well:  a classic, said Lewis, “is entirely irreplaceable in the sense that no other book whatever comes anywhere near . . . being even a . . . substitute for it.”  For people who have tasted the full measure of excellence in expository preaching, no other type of preaching or even spiritual input can take its place.

If we want confirmation of that claim, all we need to do is talk to people who have experienced the power of expository preaching and developed an appetite for it.  When have you encountered churchgoers who say that they used to like expository preaching?  Further, candidates for church membership in churches where expository preaching is practiced overwhelmingly give the nature of the preaching as the reason for their having been attracted to the church. 

This leads to the further conclusion that the quality of people’s responses to expository preaching proves that it is something that the contemporary church needs.  We cannot claim that good expository preaching is the only type of preaching that evokes an enthusiastic response or commends a church to its attenders.  Churches that do not practice expository preaching are obviously capable of attracting large and even phenomenal numbers of attenders, as are some churches where expository preaching is the norm.  But when the thing that attracts people is excellent expository preaching, we know that the appeal rests on the in-depth encounter with the Bible and its accompanying effects in the lives of the attenders.  Contrariwise, we know that this is not the “carry-away” experience of people who have not heard an expository sermon.  What such churchgoers carry away from a sermon may be worthy or unworthy, helpful or unhelpful to their Christian lives, but it is almost certainly not an in-depth encounter with the Bible.

This being the case, we come back to this question:  how important do we regard the Bible as being in the lives of believers and the church?  If we regard it as central and indispensable, it is impossible that we should not insist on expository preaching as the normal practice.  If we do not regard the Bible as primary, any number of other types of sermons or even alternatives to sermons become possible.  It is time for evangelical preachers and churches to live up to their theoretic profession about the centrality of the Bible.  By default, churches who do not practice expository preaching have allowed substitutes to replace the Bible and its benefits in the corporate life of the church.

Finally, the contemporary church needs expository preaching because of the multiple levels at which the Bible engages those who hear it powerfully expounded.  The Bible is a book of doctrine whose ideas engage our minds when we consider it thoughtfully.  It is a literary anthology that enlivens our imaginations.  It is an affective book whose beauty and powerful words awaken the wellsprings of our emotions.  And it is a book of ethics whose precepts and examples direct us in daily living.  A book that is as versatile as this deserves to be unleashed from the pulpit, not hidden under a basket.

C. S. Lewis, review of Taliessin through Logres, The Oxford Magazine 64 (14 March 1946):  248-250.

A Famine of the Word

Thus far I have constructed a positive case for expository preaching in the contemporary church.  That case rests on the results that expository preaching produces in the lives of church attenders.  Having surveyed positively the reasons that would incline us to embrace expository preaching, I am ready to take a look at the negative effects that follow when the Bible disappears from public worship.

The right starting place for this melancholy analysis is an exploration of what the Bible itself calls a famine of the word.  One of the terrifying prophetic warnings in the Bible is this one from Amos 8:11-12:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord God,
when I will send a famine on the land—
not a famine of breath, nor a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord.
They shall wander from sea to sea,
and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord,
but they shall not find it.

Why is the thought of a famine of the word so terrifying?

The answer emerges when we stop to consider the ways in which we depend on the Bible.  We depend on it for our knowledge of God.  We need it to know the nature of ourselves and other people, and in particular to know the sinfulness of the human heart along with its candidacy for the grace of God.  We need the Bible in order to know the way of salvation.  We depend on it for our morality and in order to avoid making moral shipwreck of our lives.  We depend on the Bible for certainty of hope for the future.

What would life be like for us and our offspring if these things were taken away from us?  This would be the ultimate terror, surely.  A famine of the word deprives us of what we most need to build a meaningful life.  Without the Bible and its truth, we become no better off than the ancient pagan or the unbeliever on our block.  Amos’ picture of people running “to and fro” and yet not finding the word of God finds its New Testament counterpart in the spectacle that Paul describes of people “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7).

It is theoretically possible but practically unlikely that an individual Christian can attain a private feast of the word in the absence of expository preaching from the pulpit.  For reasons that I covered earlier in this chapter, the die is cast, either positively or negatively, by what happens in the pulpit of a church.  Although some form of biblical influence will flow from textual sermons preached on a single Bible verse, as well as from topical sermons in which a preacher conducts a bicycle trip through a forest of scattered Bible verses, the quality of contact with the Bible in these formats is distinctly limited and usually superficial when compared to in-depth exploration of a single but substantial unit of the Bible.

“My wife attended a service in the Midwest in which no Bible reading of any kind was a part of worship, and the preacher himself made casual mention of Scripture only a couple of minutes before the end of his sermon. . . .  A minister friend on vacation attended a congregation that advertised itself on the front lawn as a ‘Bible church.’  He was surprised that at no time was the Bible read except for a few verses before the pastor preached.”—Donald N. Bastian, “The Silenced Word,” Christianity Today 5 March 2001:  92.

But even an emaciated contact with the Bible is better than no contact whatever.  The real facilitators of the current famine of the word in the church are pulpits from which the Bible is virtually totally absent.  When Moses stood before the people of God, he claimed that the word of God is not in heaven or across the sea but is very near (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).  Christians today, too, need not undertake an epic journey to find the word, but they may need to make a trek to their pastor’s office to ask why they have been deprived of the Bible in the pulpit.

Biblical Illiteracy in the Contemporary Church

The foregoing discussion of the syndrome of the famine of the Word prophesied by Amos is in itself hypothetical.  Is there evidence of actual ignorance of the Bible in the contemporary Christian church?  The phenomenon of biblical illiteracy in the contemporary church has become an axiom among observers of the Christian scene.

Some of the evidence is “soft” in nature and consists of anecdotal data.  Professors in Christian schools and colleges regularly record their impressions that students today know the Bible less well than did students two and three decades ago.  Gary Burge of Wheaton College claims on the basis of Bible content tests given to incoming students that there has been a documentable decline in knowledge of the Bible, and he also found that only half of high school students at a sampling of evangelical churches could pass a simple 25-question test on Bible content. David Jeffrey, Provost at Baylor University, painted a similar picture in an address, concluding that “biblical illiteracy is nearly as extreme among evangelical college students as it is among the general populace.” Yale University theologian George A. Lindbeck claimed that when he first arrived at Yale in the mid-twentieth century, even students from nonreligious backgrounds knew the Bible better than those in more recent times who come from churchgoing families.

The religious surveys conducted by the Barna Research Group have documented the extent of biblical illiteracy for the past two decades.  Whereas the sources cited above focus on the loss of biblical knowledge, the Barna research group is concerned with the incongruity between Christians’ beliefs and the Bible (the loss of a biblical world view).  Among their conclusions are these:

  • “We live in an age of spiritual anarchy” (185).
  • “[In} the Christian church in the U.S. . . . people wholeheartedly believe things that antithetical to what the Bible teaches—and nobody challenges them or imposes sanctions on them for their beliefs” (186).
  • “We cannot really call the faith of American Christians a Bible-based faith. It is a synthetic, syncretic faith, . . . a combination of disparate and sometimes opposing religious ideas that have been combined into something completely new and sometimes illogical” (187).
  • In the foreseeable future, “Bible knowledge will continue to decline. Unless a cataclysmic event occurs to drive people back to a genuine acceptable of Bible-based truth, our casual commitment to God’s ways will become even more casual and self-directed’ (201).

It is not my primary aim to prove the degree to which biblical illiteracy is a result of the decline of expository preaching.  My concern is with solutions to the problem.  It stands to reason that a return to expository preaching would help to (a) set an example and provide an impetus for regarding contact with the Bible as crucial in the life of a Christian and (b) increase a churchgoer’s actual knowledge of biblical content.  Conversely, Christians are unlikely to attain the goal of mastering the Bible without the presence of expository preaching in their lives.  As Michael J. Vlach has said in connection with the trends noted by Barna, “The systematic approach to teaching [biblical] truth must start with the pulpit.”

Gary Burge, “The Greatest Story Never Read,” Christianity Today, 9 August 1999:  45-49.

David Lyle Jeffrey, as quoted in  by Tammi Reed Ledbetter, BP [Baptist Press] News, online, 30 November 2004.

George A. Lindbeck, “The Church’s Mission to a Postmodern Culture,” in Postmodern Theology:  Christian Faith in a Pluralist World (San Francisco:  Harper and Row, 1989), 45.

George Barna and Mark Hatch, Boiling Point (Ventura, CA:  Regal), 2001.

Michael J. Vlach, “Crisis in America:  Churches’ Bible Knowledge at All-Time Low,” online, www.theologicalstudies.org.

The Effects of Not Elevating the Bible as the Final Authority

Thus far I have explored the negative effects that occur when a church and its members do not have regular in-depth contact with the Bible and thus lose the benefits that flow from such contact.  But additionally we need to consider what happens when the Bible ceases to function as the authority for religious belief and conduct.  If we agree that in actual practice a congregation’s view of authority will be decisively influenced and even determined by the presence or absence of the Bible in the preacher’s sermons, we can proceed to examine the negative results of an eclipse of biblical authority in the life of a church.  What happens when the authority of the Bible is not modeled from the pulpit?

To begin, whatever is substituted in place of the Bible becomes de facto the thing to which church members look for spiritual and moral direction.  If the preacher simply asserts his own ideas without resorting to the Bible, the preacher himself becomes the source of religious belief in the church.  If skits or film clips replace the Bible in Sunday morning, the producers of the skits or films become the foundation of a congregation’s religious beliefs.  The media themselves have become the authority in many people’s lives.  Any source from which a preacher quotes becomes an authority.  Pop psychology has replaced the Bible as the authority in a very large segment of evangelicalism.

“To neglect the Bible is to remove the chief authority on which our faith is built.  We are left vulnerable, unable to check the teachings of those who invite us to follow, incapable of charting a true course past siren voices calling from treacherous islands such as TV programs, popular books, and enchanting prophecies displayed on colorful Web sites.”—Gary Burge, “The Greatest Story Never Read,” 47.

Of course, when a smorgasbord of human authorities is offered from the pulpit, churchgoers soon catch the spirit of the enterprise and conclude that they can function as their own authority for religious belief.  The outcome is a thoroughgoing relativism in people’s views of what constitutes truth.

Furthermore, when ethical directives are removed from the authority of the Bible, two possible things usually happen.  One is an individualistic ethic in which people determine their own ethical principles and practices.  Alternatively, Christians start to take their cues from their secular society and end up with a morality that is barely Christian at all.  Given the decline of biblical presence in evangelical churches, it is no wonder that surveys show that the ethical views of evangelical Christendom differ little from the surrounding secular culture.
            If ethical certainty and the distinctiveness of biblical morality are lost when the Bible ceases to function as the authority in the church, there is a counterpart in regard to theology and worldview.  Truth becomes relativized and removed from a biblical base.  The result is that the Bible ceases to provide the content of a person’s worldview and fund of ideas.  Cultural forces fill the theological vacuum.  The nearly inevitable outcome is an adulteration of Christian belief and eventual apostasy.  George Barna’s research revealed that only nine percent of self-designated “born again” Christians have a biblical worldview, and that “six out of seven congregants in the typical church do not share the biblical worldview of their pastor even when he or she has one.”

The process I have just noted perhaps explains why revivals throughout history have often lacked staying power.  Revivals have usually had a strong experiential foundation.  The content that wins the allegiance of converts is the Gospel, loosely based on the Bible.  But unless the start of life in Christ is sustained by genuine growth in the knowledge of the Bible and exposure to its content, Christians lack the anchor that the Christian life requires.  The same paradigm prevails in the lives of individuals:  without a continuous assimilation of the biblical worldview and submission to the Bible’s authority, people either live by a combination of Christianity and the spirit of the age, or they drift from true Christianity completely.

For data on the degree to which cultural accommodation has occurred among evangelicals in such areas as materialism, the media, sexual conduct, marriage, and pluralism, see R. Kent Hughes, Set Apart:  Calling a Worldly Church to a Godly Life (Wheaton;  Crossway, 2003.

Ledbetter, online, BP News, 30 November 2004.

The Whole Counsel of God

A final aberration that virtually always happens in the absence of expository preaching is the syndrome of partial coverage in the pulpit.  By this I mean that when preachers follow their own agenda of interests in choosing their sermon topics, they follow their own existing fund of knowledge, biases, and interests.  The result is that congregations end up hearing a narrow swath of Christian theology and ethics.  The scope of coverage from the pulpit is no broader than the individual preacher’s knowledge and interests.

We might think that preachers who preach topical sermons and get their supporting data from the Bible would avoid this syndrome, but this is less true than we might suppose.  The first reason for this is that the choice of topics is still subject to the complete control of the preacher, with his limitations of knowledge and interests.  And when a topical preacher goes to the Bible to gather his supporting data, he is in some ways still governed by what he is able to uncover by way of memory and research.  I do not intend to disparage this fund of biblical data, but there are more variability and gaps than usually prevail with expository preaching.

Furthermore, a preacher who uses the Bible only for supporting data in pursuit of a thesis may or may not put himself under the control of the Bible.  The very format often results in a preacher’s running the biblical data through the lens of his own interests and biases.  For some preachers, this means that every sermon ends up as a comment on the family.  For others, it is a message of health and wealth.  Other preachers find a way to turn every sermon in a therapeutic direction in which the goal is to make listeners feel good about themselves.  I have already noted the prevalence of pop psychology in the pulpit.  Still other sermons wind their way to political or sociological persuasions, or to moralizing about how to live as good citizens and neighbors.

How does expository preaching guard against these pitfalls, and how does it protect a congregation from them?  To begin, when a preacher commits himself to explicating a biblical passage, he has thereby relinquished his control over his message.  He has become a steward who passes on God’s message.  As a preacher follows the contours of the passage, the passage itself establishes its agenda of topics and conclusions.  The preacher is the servant of the text, not vice versa.  The preacher becomes a travel guide for his listeners.  By virtue of his education and preparation, he knows more about the landscape than his fellow travelers know, but he does not construct the landscape itself, and his fellow travelers are free to discover truths and applications that he has missed.

In expository preaching, “The passage itself is the voice, the speech of God; the preacher is the mouth and the lips, and the congregation . . . the ear in which the voice sounds.”—Gustaf Wingren, The Living Word (London:  SCM, 1960), 203.

Not the least of the advantages of expository preaching is that the process of exploring a Bible passage inevitably becomes a process of discovery for the both a preacher and his congregation.  As a preacher begins his spadework on the passage for his next sermon, he does not know exactly what truths he will discover.  This is the genius of an inductive Bible study of any type, and an expository sermon obeys the dynamics of an inductive Bible study during a preacher’s sermon preparation.

All other types of sermons result in a situation in which a preacher is limited by what he already knows.  He may discover new angles of vision during the course of his research, but he has not opened a decisive doorway beyond his current fund of knowledge in a way that expository preaching opens new vistas.

We can add one more important advantage that ordinarily characterizes expository preaching.  While an expository preacher does not need to preach through books of the Bible, that practice has been the dominant one among expository preachers.  In choosing to preach through a book of the Bible, a preacher relinquishes his control over the topics and contents of his sermons.  At some deep level, he has turned the homiletic process over to the control of the Holy Spirit who inspired the writers of the Bible.  Additionally, he has freed his congregation from being subject to his own agenda of interests, his tendency to keep repeating his personal understanding of what his congregation needs to hear, and the limitations of his own fund of knowledge.  What preacher and congregation would not welcome such a liberation?

Expository preaching opens the door to an ideal that the Bible itself calls “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).  Over the long haul, expository preaching almost guarantees that this ideal will prevail in the life of a local church.

Does expository preaching remove a preacher’s ability to speak to the current life of the congregation?  That question is best answered by expository preachers themselves, who will overwhelmingly attest to the ways in which God by his providence makes the Bible passage for the week’s sermon fit what is happening in the life of the congregation.  Furthermore, expository preachers know the distinctive themes of the various books of the Bible, and they can choose books that can be trusted to fall within the parameters of what is relevant to the life of a congregation at a given time.

Summary

Why does the contemporary church need expository preaching?  As we cast a retrospective look over the territory covered in this chapter, here are the answers that we have given to that question:

  • The Bible makes extravagant claims about its effects in the lives of people who assimilate it at a deep level.
  • The preaching of the word is a means of grace in which the Holy Spirit himself makes God present in a believer’s life.
  • The incidence and quality of a congregation’s assimilation of the Bible is heavily influenced by whether or not the Bible is central in the preaching that occurs in a church.
  • When the word of God disappears from the pulpit, a famine of the word in the life of the church becomes almost inevitable.
  • There is evidence that such a famine of the word has accompanied the disappearance of expository preaching in the contemporary church.

Expository preaching guarantees that the whole counsel of God will be proclaimed from the pulpit.

Notes

1 Yves M. J. Congar, The Word and the Spirit, trans. David Smith (San Francisco:  Harper and Row, 1986), 19.

2 George B. Christopher, Milton and the Science of the Saints (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1982), 12.

3 Çongar, 25-26.  In context, Congar applies this principle to both reading and preaching of the Word.

4 C. S. Lewis, review of Taliessin through Logres, The Oxford Magazine 64 (14 March 1946):  248-250.

5 Gary Burge, “The Greatest Story Never Read,” Christianity Today, 9 August 1999:  45-49.

6 David Lyle Jeffrey, as quoted in  by Tammi Reed Ledbetter, BP [Baptist Press] News, online, 30 November 2004.

7 George A. Lindbeck, “The Church’s Mission to a Postmodern Culture,” in Postmodern Theology:  Christian Faith in a Pluralist World (San Francisco:  Harper and Row, 1989), 45.

8 George Barna and Mark Hatch, Boiling Point (Ventura, CA:  Regal), 2001.

9 Michael J. Vlach, “Crisis in America:  Churches’ Bible Knowledge at All-Time Low,” online, www.theologicalstudies.org.

10 For data on the degree to which cultural accommodation has occurred among evangelicals in such areas as materialism, the media, sexual conduct, marriage, and pluralism, see R. Kent Hughes, Set Apart:  Calling a Worldly Church to a Godly Life (Wheaton;  Crossway, 2003.

11 Ledbetter, online, BP News, 30 November 2004.

Leland Ryken

Leland wants to see people growing and reading the Bible as literature. He has been a college teacher of literature for over half a century, authored some sixty books, and now continues to bless the Church through his resources made freely available on this site.

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