You Say You Are an Expositor
Like many widely-used terms in the church today, “expository preaching” seems to be understood in many different ways by those who claim to practice it. What some would consider an expository sermon would be considered by others to be textual at best, or even topical. Others see expository preaching as a type of “running commentary” that merely explains a passage of Scripture. Some conceive of expository sermons in terms of detailed word studies or elaborate exegetical outlines. Still others believe that expository sermons are irrelevant because they fail to apply biblical truth to modern hearers.
Just what is expository preaching? What would qualify as an expository sermon? There is a great need in the church today for clear definitions of the biblical task of preaching. What does God expect from preachers, and if expository preaching is the biblical model, what does it consist of? How do preachers insure that their preaching is, in fact, expository preaching?
How has expository preaching been defined by those in the field of hermeneutics and homiletics? An examination of the definitions being given shows quite a wide variety of viewpoints. Some are (perhaps) more accurate than others. Some go beyond the bounds of defining expository preaching with the addition of other theological or hermeneutical conditions. Some appear to be too narrow in defining the scope of expository sermons. Others, however, are very accurate and helpful in acquiring a good understanding of the subject.
For many years, Haddon Robinson’s Biblical Preaching was the classic guide to expository preaching. The subtitle to the book is The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. Robinson defines expository preaching as: “… 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 him to his hearers.”
An important observation in regard to this definition is that a single concept is being communicated, even though that concept is to be derived from a “historical, grammatical and literary study of a passage in its context.” Commenting on the single concept approach, Robinson explains, “In our approach to the Bible … we are primarily concerned not with what individual words mean, but what the biblical writer means through his use of words.” He goes on to say, “A word-by-word grammatical analysis can be as pointless and boring as reading a dictionary. If an expositor aims to understand the Bible and to communicate its message, he must do so on the level of ideas.”
Robinson makes it clear that the concept must come from the text itself, and not from the opinions of the preacher. He writes, “In his study the expositor searches for the objective meaning of a passage.” He describes this aspect of the expositor’s task as “(pulling) up his chair to where the biblical authors sat … (and attempting) to work his way back into the world of the Scriptures to understand the message.” He cautions that “even in what is billed as ‘expository preaching’ the verses can become launching pads for the preacher’s own opinions.”
Robinson also connects expository preaching with authority in preaching. In another book he writes, “The constant temptation is to cry out some other message than the Scriptures … (but) if a preacher does not preach the Scriptures he abandons his authority.” His conclusion is that “the type of preaching that most effectively lays open the Bible so that people are confronted by its truth is expository preaching.”
Another fairly concise definition of an expository sermon in given by Jerry Vines and Jim Shaddix in Power in the Pulpit. They define an expository sermon as: “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.”
They define exposition as “the process of laying open a biblical text in such a way that its original meaning is brought to bear on the lives of contemporary listeners.” In fact, the authors of this book are very careful with their definitions, and clearly define such terms as exegesis, hermeneutics, and homiletics, as well as the definition already cited.
They even include an “expository sermon checklist” which includes these requirements for a sermon to be considered an expository sermon: 1.) It must be based upon a passage from the Bible. The actual meaning of the passage must be found. 2.) The meaning must be related to the immediate and general context of the passage. 3.) The eternal, timeless truths in the passage must be elucidated. 4.) The truths must be gathered around a compelling theme. 5.) The main divisions of the sermon must be drawn from the structure of the passage itself. 6.) Every possible method to apply the truths must be utilized. 7.) The hearers must be called to obey those truths and to live them out in daily life.
An important observation from this checklist (and the definition of an expository sermon given earlier) is that the structure of the sermon itself is to come from the biblical text. Vines and Shaddix put strong emphasis on the content of the sermon coming from a correct understanding of a biblical passage in its proper context. They also focus on the development of a “central theme,” around which the sermon is to be built, and the application of “eternal, timeless truths” to the lives of the hearers.
Stephen F. Olford defines expository preaching as “… the Spirit-empowered explanation and proclamation of the text of God’s Word with due regard to the historical, contextual, grammatical, and doctrinal significance of the given passage, with the specific object of invoking a Christ-transforming response.”
Although the added emphasis on the preaching being “Spirit-empowered” is helpful and priority is given to the text of Scripture in its “historical, contextual, grammatical, and doctrinal significance” is highlighted, the use of the word “significance” rather than “meaning” is a concern. Proponents of the “new homiletic” tend to use significance in place of meaning. Their concern is not for the original author’s meaning, but the text’s perceived significance for today, which isn’t always tied to the author’s original intent. This needs to be clarified in one’s definition of expository preaching.
Perhaps the best treatment of this subject is provided by Richard Mayhue in Rediscovering Expository Preaching. Although his definition of expository preaching is not comprehensive, he does define an expositor as “one who explains Scripture by laying open the text to public view in order to set forth its meaning, explain what is difficult to understand, and make appropriate application.” His list of “minimal elements” is especially instructive. He writes, “In summary, the following minimal elements identify expository preaching: 1. The message finds its sole source in Scripture. 2. The message is extracted from Scripture through careful exegesis. 3. The message preparation correctly interprets Scripture in its normal sense and its context. 4. The message clearly explains the original God-intended meaning of Scripture. The message applies the Scriptural meaning for today.”
Mayhue also provides a needed warning to all who want to clearly understand the true nature of expository preaching. He writes: “We must be warned that faithful exposition of a text does not of itself produce an effective sermon … however … faithfulness to the text is not to be sacrificed for the sake of what we presume to be relevancy. This sacrifice too many modern preachers seem willing to make, producing, as a result, sermons that are a compound of moralistic advice, their own unauthoritative and sometimes unwise opinions, and the latest psychology.”
This is right on target! This is indeed the battle ground for the pulpit in America today. Every preacher must determine whether or not he will be faithful to the text of sacred Scripture or succumb to the pressures and temptations of pragmatism. The pursuit of relevancy is a “slippery slope” down which many modern preachers have fallen. The church is in great need of those who will remain faithful to the God-ordained calling of expository preaching (2 Tim. 4:1-4, Col. 1:25).
An interesting perspective on expository preaching is given by Walter C. Kaiser Jr. in his book, Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament. He writes, “An expository sermon or lesson is one that takes a minimum of a full paragraph (a scene in a narrative or a strophe in poetry) and allows the biblical text to supply both the shape and the content of the message or lesson from that text itself.”
This definition is unique in that it specifies a certain length for a text which is appropriate for an expository sermon. No doubt this would be debated by many, yet the point is made that expository preaching is so tied to a given text that it must be true to the text, and since the Bible is written in paragraphs and strophes (and other such literary constructs), being faithful to the text implies communicating it is its essential form.
Kaiser makes the point that even the structure of the text is inspired, and therefore must be conformed to in expository preaching in order to be true to the divinely-inspired text. The more a sermon conforms to “both the shape and content” of a given biblical text, the more expositional the sermon becomes. In contrast, the more a sermon departs from the text, the less expositional it is.
Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, was not considered an expository preacher by many. However, what is often overlooked in his preaching is that he would “exposit” the entire chapter he was preaching from during the reading of the Scripture, earlier in the service before he would get up and preach on one or two verses. Not only would he read the entire chapter, but he would also comment on every verse during that time. So, even though his preaching was probably what we would refer to as textual/theological, here is how he defined preaching: “The discourse (sermon) should spring out of the text as a rule, and the more evidently it does so the better … A sermon, moreover, comes with far greater power to the consciences of the hearers when it is plainly the very word of God—not a lecture about the Scriptures, but Scripture itself opened up and enforced.”
Spurgeon recognized that the authority in preaching comes from the Scriptures. Therefore the closer a preacher is to the text of the Scripture, the more authority he has in his preaching. He was concerned that preachers preach in such a way that it is obvious to the hearers that the message is “the very word of God.” That will only occur if the sermon is the opening up of the Scripture itself.
More recently, D. Martin Lloyd-Jones gave this brief, yet poignant definition of preaching: “In a sermon the theme or the doctrine is something that arises out of the text and its context, it is something which is illustrated by the text and context.” What is noteworthy about this definition is that, not only does the sermon itself arise from the “text and context,” but it is also to be illustrated by the “text and context.” This should be taken to mean that it must stay true to the structure and content of the passage.
The paragraph this quote is taken from is an explanation of the difference between a sermon and a lecture. Whereas a lecture is based upon a given subject, a sermon is to be based upon a given text. Lloyd-Jones goes on to warn against “making the sermon a running commentary on, or mere exposition of, the meaning of a verse or a passage or a paragraph.” He recognizes that even though an expository sermon is based upon exposition, it is not merely exposition. It also must include application and exhibit the art form of effective homiletics.
Though not as widely recognized, pastor and author Michael Fabarez has something to contribute to this issue of expository preaching. He writes, “Though a fair amount of confusion and debate surround the label ‘expository preaching,’ it is fair to sum up the essence of expository preaching in this way and with these primary components: 1.) it clearly derives its content from the Bible; 2.) it accurately explains what the Bible is saying; and 3.) it effects the change God intends for the Bible to effect.”
The uniqueness of this definition is that it includes the element of “effect.” Although many would likely debate the third point, as to whether this is in fact the responsibility of the preacher or something that is inherent in the Word of God itself or something that is accomplished by the Spirit of God in the life of the believer, the point Fabarez is making is that the expository sermon must go beyond explaining the meaning of the text.
He goes on to explain that “being faithful to these components means I first exegete the biblical passage (the first component), then attempt to set forth or explain what God is saying (the second component). Of course, all of my preaching presupposes that God wants His Word to make a difference in the lives of those who hear it (the third component).” He then insists that “this third and oft-lost component … must rest firmly on the foundation of the first two components in order to effect eternal change.”
Steve Lawson defines expository preaching as “… that public proclamation which is biblically based, God-exalting, Christ-centered, Spirit-filled, well-structured, relevant, and life-changing. It is that form of preaching which expounds a passage of Scripture, lays open the God-intended meaning of the biblical text, and shows the practical relevance of its truth for today. It involves both explanation and application, as well as elements of motivation, inspiration, conviction, consolation, and invitation, depending upon the thrust of the biblical text and the needs of the listeners.”
So what is expository preaching? It is preaching that utilizes the structure and the content of the biblical text as the structure and content of the sermon for the purpose of applying the original message of the author to the modern hearer. It is preaching that remains true to the text of Scripture and its original meaning as determined by diligent exegesis, and it is preaching that follows the structure of the text in explaining and applying that original meaning to the modern audience.