In previous posts we have discovered the vitality of exposition in various ways. The definitions, purposes, powers, and dangers have been considered. A clarification must be made before examining the different types of preaching in light of exposition. My aim is to show that expository preaching meets the standards that Scripture sets forth for this sacred task. I believe all preaching should and can be expository. Every type of preaching that follows may not be expository in title; however, they can be expository in nature.
We will begin with the type which defines all other types of preaching. Expository preaching has been defined by many different people, in many different times, and in many different ways. I will offer several definitions for consideration and use the defining thoughts from prior posts to set forth the gem of exposition.
Haddon Robinson in his work, Biblical Preaching, defines the term in a way that includes spiritual and practical elements.
Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the hearers. (Robinson 21)
Robinson basically states that exposition occurs when the preacher sets forth a text through careful study and the empowering of the Spirit. Hermeneutics and the Holy Spirit join forces to equip the preacher for exposition. What a powerful combination!
Power in the Pulpit by Jerry Vines and Jim Shaddixis a comprehensive guide to preparing and delivering expository sermons. They define an expository sermon in a more technical manner.
A discourse that expounds a passage of scripture, organizes it around a central theme and main divisions which issue forth from the given text, and then decisively applies its message to the listeners (Shaddix/Vines 29)
This definition emphasizes the importance of the text and the organizational structure of an expository sermon. The word expound captures the meaning of exposition very accurately. All points are shaped around the text, not vice versa.
In his book, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church, Mark Dever places expository preaching as the first and foremost mark of a thriving church. He summarizes the central necessity of expository preaching.
Expositional preaching is preaching in service to the word. It presumes a belief in the authority of Scripture—that the Bible is actually God’s word; but it is something much more than that. A commitment to expositional preaching is a commitment to hear God’s word—not just to affirm it is God’s Word but to actually submit yourself to it.
A common thread within these definitions is the dependence on the word of God. I shout “Amen” to each of these; however, I would like to endeavor to clarify a bit further using premises I have already built upon. Expository preaching is having the heart divinely inclined towards the word of God, deriving the message or sermon from the Scripture, proclaiming this word in dependence on the Holy Spirit, and doing all of this to God’s glory. Can there be another type of preaching? Must not every sermon walk this path if it is to be biblical, God-honoring, and edifying to the body? If we wish to see sinners saved, saints sanctified, and God glorified there is no other way. The trends and times will undoubtedly change, but the word of the Lord remains forever.
Each type of preaching that follows will have nuances which set them apart, but they can and should each be expository at heart. The style or structure of the sermon is adaptable, but the foundation upon which is stands is immovable. I will briefly define each type and demonstrate that each can be expository and therefore meet the qualifications of a biblical definition, purpose, and power.
1. Topical Preaching
Topics are popular things within any society. They give us something to talk about, but the call to preach is not just a call to speak. A sermon with a topical format takes up one particular subject and cites texts that address it. The notion itself is not in error; however, extreme caution must be taken when applying this method to the Scriptures. The great temptation is to use the Scripture as evidence to support the opinion of the speaker on any given matter. In the classic homiletics text, The Preacher and His Preaching, Alfred P. Gibbs defines topical preaching as “choosing a certain subject or topic, and then searching through all the Scriptures to discover what light can be thrown on the subject under consideration” (Gibbs 268). The underlying danger is turning the preaching ministry into a book report format where we tell the people what “the Book” says about certain things. If the preacher comes to the word with a specific topic pressed upon his heart, labors in the word in dependence on the Spirit, submits himself to the clear teaching of Scripture, and preaches from submitted dependence, then topical preaching can be expositional. This type of preaching can praise the Father and empower the people of God.
2. Narrative Preaching
Everyone likes to hear a good story, especially one that captivates the imagination and draws the hearer into the very life of the characters.
Narrative preaching has traditionally been considered as a sermon based upon a narrative text. In recent days, however, homileticians have defined it by sermonic form instead of literary genre. Thus, contemporary narrative sermons frequently encompass those messages that, from outset to conclusion, bind the entire message to a single plot as theme. Such a sermon may be better described as a story sermon. (Shaddix/Vines 30)
The potential problem with this approach is to transition the call to preach into a call to tell stories. The Bible is not merely a collection of stories; it is the inspired word of God. Nonetheless, this type of preaching can be expository as well. For example, to take the narrative plot of the journey of Jesus to Calvary can certainly meet the aforementioned qualifications. As we narrate the scenes of the word, we must take extreme precaution to present God as the main character and everyone else as supporting roles. If we preach narrative sermons in this mindset, we will present the plots of the word in an expository way and subsequently honor the Father and help the church.
3. Biographical Sermons
There are a host of biographies out examining the lives of countless individuals; some achieving great feats of honor and some humbly accepting the lot laid out for them in life. The Bible is filled with people possessing struggles, strengths, and noble characteristics, which we can easily identify with today. Often messages seek to put on display the people of the Bible in an effort to bring out life lessons for the modern Christian. The biographical sermon:
Consists of the study of a person’s life and the lessons to be learned from it; how we may be warned by his failures and encouraged by his successes. It is really the study of a person’s character which, in turn, determines his career. (Gibbs 283)
Great care must be applied as we seek to employ this method of preaching. We must not call God’s people to the model of Moses, David, Daniel, Elijah, Paul, or any other person within the word. Ponder for a moment how ineffective it is to direct people to imitate the behavior of those who have run their race and finished their course. Do you think it plausible that Moses was so close to God because he was directed to be more like his forefathers? Could David’s courage be rooted in the biographical sketches of those who went before him? Will Christians receive more courage by learning life lessons from David or being pointed to the source of David’s strength: God? If we study the character of man and forego seeing the characteristics of God, we cease to be expository. Biography is a powerful tool to the preacher if he sees the deeper biography of God in each biblical character.
This is by no means an all inclusive summary of every type of preaching. However, the same process of evaluation should be applied to any type of preaching to ensure that it is sound. Over time preaching has changed. New models and precedents have been set and this will undoubtedly continue. Regardless of the innovative strategies to affect the pulpit, we must be certain to be faithful to God and his word. The breeze of the Holy Spirit continuously renews hearts, minds, and the methods of preaching, but it will never change the fundamental foundation of God’s word and glory.
As I conclude this series of posts I’d like to make a final push to advocate for expository preaching. It has been demonstrated that even different styles of organizing sermons can be expository, but is this too strict a guideline? I do not believe so if we consider the true meaning of proclaiming God’s word. The abandonment of exposition is widespread and the pull on faithful expositors to adapt to changing culture is strong.
Those in the pulpit face the pressing temptation to deliver some message other than that of the Scriptures—a political system (either right wing or left wing), a theory of economics, a new religious philosophy, old religious slogans, or a trend in psychology. Ministers can proclaim anything in a stained-glass voice at 11:30 on Sunday morning following the singing of hymns yet when they fail to preach the scriptures, they abandon their authority. (Robinson 20)
Tarry for a while on the thought that the opposite of exposition is interposition. In other words, if we do not draw out from the text its original intent, the only other alternative is that we read into the text what we want it to say. We are all guilty of longing for grey areas to find a balance between what we know is right and the wrong we are comfortable with. There is no such grey area in preaching. To interpose human philosophy, psychology, intuition, or intellect into the word of God in the slightest is to forsake exposition. We are called to let the word of God form our philosophies, psychologies, intuitions, and intellects. All ministers of the word will fall into one of the two categories and my prayer is that by God’s grace more and more would find strength in the exposition of Scripture.
The call to preach is a call to proclaim the entirety of the word. The preacher is charged with equipping the saints and ministering for the purpose of spiritual maturity. He is furthermore held to a higher standard for the responsibility entrusted to him by God. Surely no minister will want to stand before the King of kings one day and explain why he neglected to feed the sheep, preach the word, or depend on the Spirit. The apostle Paul again instructs us on the seriousness of this calling from on high.
But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that ye all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, shall see my face no more. Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God. Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. (Acts 20:24–28)
His preaching is saturated with the Gospel, grace, the Kingdom of God, and dependence on God; therefore, he can say that he is innocent of the blood of all men to whom he has proclaimed the word. Preachers, feel the urgency of declaring the whole counsel of God that we may be innocent of the blood of those who sit under our preaching. Be expositors of the word and lead people to salvation, sanctification, and glorification.
Let us not labor in the vanity of wordless proclamation, but by God’s grace let us answer the call to the exposition of Scripture. May the word be proclaimed, the people be edified, and by all means let God be glorified!
Calvinist Picard is a Master of Arts in Biblical Studies graduate and currently about halfway through a Ph.D. in Leadership program. He has worked in education and ministry in various roles for just a little over a decade. Follow him on Twitter at @CalvinistPicard and on Facebook at CalvinistPicard.