by Johnathan Arnold
John and Sarah Saint go to church three times and hear three sermons each week. In total, they hear 156 sermons each year. Since John and Sarah have been going to church for 32 years, they have heard nearly 5,000 sermons. But, amazingly, John and Sarah admit that they do not understand the Bible very well (even though they read it daily) or know why they believe much of what they believe. They are not unlike many Christians.
The church has recently awakened to this reality and is taking more responsibility for bridging the gap between experience and knowledge. A new watchword in fundamentalist circles is “discipleship,” by which most mean systematic teaching in a small group setting similar to the class meetings of the Wesleyan heritage. These small groups typically cover a series of Bible studies or follow a pre-written curriculum.
Since some churches have been successful with the small group model (a dialogue), it has caused many to question the primacy of preaching (a monologue) for the ever-connected modern audience. It was recently said that “in the contemporary church, small groups will increasingly become the primary way that the church goes forward, even more-so than preaching.” This is tragically misplaced thinking. We should not be alarmed by small group discipleship; however, we should be frightened when these measures are taken at the expense of preaching.
While some have turned to small group discipleship to bridge the gap between experience and knowledge, the preaching of the Word is still the most important thing that happens in any church.
The gradual shift away from the primacy of preaching to a small group culture is not happening because small groups are inherently more effective. Instead, small groups are more effective than the kind of preaching that people are offered in many churches. The shift is largely the outflow of an alarming deficit in our pulpit ministry: we drive John and Sarah to the altar, but we do not disclose to them the whole counsel of God; we do not satisfy their need for deep, ongoing spiritual formation, explain why we believe what we believe, or help them to think Biblically. Instead, we offer John and Sarah a grab bag of 5,000 inspirational three-point alliterated outlines.
In the new era of small group discipleship, we must not forget that preaching is discipleship. We tend to think about discipleship and preaching as two separate things; rather, preaching is the main way that discipleship happens and small groups supplement the pulpit ministry. The preaching of the Word is still the most important thing that happens in any church; therefore, we must reevaluate our philosophy of preaching to meet the needs of the people in our pews. In short, we must establish expository preaching as the new norm.
What is Expository Preaching?
Expository preaching is based on one very simple idea: preaching is about confronting people with the exact, entire, plain meaning of a Bible passage. The expositor preaches in such a way that if Moses or Jesus or Paul were in the audience, he would say “that is exactly what I was trying to say in that passage.” The expositor studies a text of Scripture in its original context, is burdened by the weight of its relevance, and ascends to the pulpit to declare “Thus saith the Lord” with exacting accuracy.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains that a preacher is an ambassador who has received a message from the King. The message that the King has given to him is the Bible. In a sermon, "I do not bring my own thoughts and ideas, I do not just tell people what I think or surmise: I deliver to them what has been given to me."
A preacher is “a man with a horn to his lips, through which he proclaims the message from the King which means life or death to those who hear it."
Expository preaching grounds people in the divine Word of God as it is transmitted through the words of the preacher week-by-week. John Stott said, “All true Christian preaching should be expository…The expositor opens what seems to be closed, makes plain what is confusing, unravels what is knotted, and unfolds what is tightly packed.” The hearers are never the same. Lives are transformed as the Holy Spirit moves and convicts hearers with the truth of a passage. Moreover, expository preaching helps people to understand their Bibles and apply their Bibles to everyday life.
Paul commanded Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2). He was to preach the Bible and the Bible alone. Moreover, he was to be “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15) on a consistent basis. The word “dividing” means “to cut,” especially with precision like a master carpenter. Derek Thomas explains that “cutting” the word meant that “Timothy was to drive a straight path through the Word of God and not deviate to the left or to the right. He was to ‘preach the word,’ meaning not only that he was to preach from the Bible, but that he was to expound the particular passage he was preaching on.”
If John and Sarah heard 5,000 expository sermons from a pastor who illuminated the meaning of seven Bible verses each service, they would have learned the entire Bible. Of course, no pastor preaches three times every week. But suppose they had only heard 1,500 sermons, less than one per week. They would still have heard over one-third of the Bible explained and applied. That is the entire New Testament plus portions of the Old Testament.
Expository preaching bridges the gap between experience and knowledge by grounding our experience in the truths that confront us in the pages of holy writ.
This means that John and Sarah would have heard multiple sermons on the Holy Spirit, the gospel, salvation, heaven, hell, holiness, stewardship, the Sabbath, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, miracles, marriage, modesty and every other important topic in the scope of Christian teaching. Just as importantly, they would have witnessed for 32 years the correct way to read and interpret the Bible, instilling habits that would naturally carry over to private study. They would understand their Bible very well and know why they believe what they believe.
The Inferiority of Topical Preaching
Compare this to sitting under the pulpit ministry of a well-meaning pastor who spends each week trying to think up or pray through on a topic. (Spurgeon himself admitted the weakness in this method when he said, “I confess that I frequently sit hour after hour praying and waiting for a subject, and that this is the main part of my study.”) The sermons of this kind of preacher are sincere; occasionally (but rarely) his clever outlines are remembered; he includes Scripture verses (sometimes out of context). His congregation grows; however, the gaps in his pulpit ministry are obvious.
J. I. Packer makes a compelling argument against topical preaching when he says that “in a topical sermon the text is reduced to a peg on which the speaker hangs his line of thought; the shape and thrust of the message reflect his own best notions of what is good for people rather than being determined by the text itself…topical discourses of this kind, no matter how biblical their component parts, cannot but fall short of being preaching in the full sense of that word, just because their biblical content is made to appear as part of the speaker’s own wisdom.”
"In a topical sermon the text is reduced to a peg on which the speaker hangs his line of thought."
Even if you do not agree completely with Packer’s convictions, it is easy to see how topical sermons translate to the reality of John and Sarah Saint. Even if the broad range of Bible doctrines are covered in a topical ministry, the hearers have a shallow understanding of the actual texts of Scripture and no understanding of how to interpret them. Moreover, John and Sarah tend to more closely resemble their pastor with his whims, weaknesses, and personal convictions. The whole Bible is needed to form a whole Christian.
John MacArthur notes that “from our weakened exposition and our superficial topical talks we have produced a generation of Christian sheep having no shepherd." Elsewhere he warns that “We must not get in the way, but rather allow our texts to ‘preach’ themselves.” Topical preaching falls desperately short of this and thus a new era of “discipleship” has arisen to fill the deficit.
The Benefits of Expository Preaching
Expository preaching is grounded in the inerrancy and absolute authority of God’s Word. The expositor understands that his most creative, fascinating, audience-gripping ideas cannot rival the power of the God-breathed Word (2 Tim. 3:16) simply explained and applied. Expository preaching is making claim to people’s lives by pointing to what is right there in front of them in the Bible; it is shedding light on the text of Scripture itself. In turn, the Word of God does the work of God in the hearts and minds of the listeners.
We have no power apart from the Word of God; the Word has its own power. People have a right to disregard our claims when they are made apart from a direct correlation to the Word of God. The God-breathed Word is our only authority as ministers. Haddon Robinson points to this as the main argument for expository preaching: he writes, “when [ministers] fail to preach the Scriptures, they abandon their authority…the type of preaching that best carries the force of divine authority is expository preaching.”
Expository preaching is making claim to people’s lives by pointing to what is right there in front of them in the Bible.
Expository preaching starts with the ideas of the Bible, not the ideas of the preacher.
You have likely listened to a preacher who reads a single verse or a few verses at most, then goes on to bare his heart or to share various thoughts that do not directly relate to the text. It is as though this preacher says, “now that we’ve read the Bible, let me share my sermon.” Rather, expository preaching demands that all of one’s thoughts are shaped by the text. The passage at hand is not just the launching point for the preacher’s thoughts — the passage at hand is the sermon. The main point that we communicate to the audience must always be the main point of the passage. The Bible text that we exposit forms the boundaries for what we say.
It has been said, “Wait until you have to preach three sermons each week — you will struggle to find sermon ideas.” This is shocking! (And not in a good way!) If we start with the Bible, how could we ever run out of ideas? The Scripture is a mine that can never be exhausted! The only way that a preacher runs out of ideas is if he is trying to think up ideas and turn to the Bible for support. This is a grave error. If we approach the Scriptures with an idea in mind, we will almost certainly bend the Scriptures to our thoughts. Expository preaching requires that we go to the Bible first, often shattering our preconceived notions altogether.
Expository preaching requires that we go to the Bible first, often shattering our preconceived notions altogether. The text that we exposit then forms the boundaries for what we say.
If we preached using the expository method, we would never again wonder what to preach. We would simply choose a passage and set out on a journey to discover God’s life-changing meaning. This does not close the door for the Holy Spirit to lead us to a particular text; rather, it promotes the normal way that the Holy Spirit works: through God’s intended meaning in God’s provided Bible.
Charles Koller puts it this way: “unless the Scriptures constitute the basis for all the structural elements of a sermon and unless the expositor labors diligently in the context of each of the texts he cites, a sermon will inevitably lack the power of the Word of Truth rightly divided, and hearers will be misled, both in the substance of what is taught and in the example of Bible study methodology. The preacher must lead his people into the text, not away from it.”
The Word of God does the work of God in the hearts and minds of the listeners.
Expository preaching is uncommonly deepening. The deeper that we go in the Word, the deeper that we go in our soul. Discovering God’s meaning in God’s text is hard work and requires all of the resources at our disposal. In fact, expository preaching is some of the hardest work that you will ever do. (If your head does not hurt, you may not have dived deeply enough into the Word.) It often involves many extra hours of preparatory work. So, with this in mind, is it worth it?
Yes! As we explore God’s meaning in a passage, it changes us deeply and in turn we can confront others with the same life changing message. This level of engagement with the Word of God has an unparalleled effect on the body of Christ. While it is easier and more imaginative to find three words that start with an “S” or a “P” and illustrate a spiritual truth, many topical sermons are often ankle-deep. The hard work of exposition it is worth the fruit that it produces. The long-term, practical difference is between meeting or neglecting the needs of the people in the pew.
Expository preaching is uncommonly gripping. People are stirred when a mystery of the Word is unveiled before their eyes, a misunderstood passage is interpreted properly, or an obscure text is shown to be supremely relevant to their lives (2 Tim. 3:16). As this mystery-revealing, text-explaining, life-relevant message is enflamed by the Spirit’s unction, dead men are made to live and saints are pressed to new depths.
The expositor understands that his most creative, fascinating, audience-gripping ideas cannot rival the power of the God-breathed Word simply explained and applied.
Expository preaching covers the whole scope of Christian teaching. Some topical preachers cover a large variety of teachings; however, they inevitably have holes in their theology and thus produce a hole-y people. George Muller noted that “expounding large portions of the Word, such as an entire gospel or epistle, leads the [preacher] to consider portions of the Word which he might otherwise overlook. This keeps him from speaking too much on favorite subjects and leaning too much to particular parts of truth – a tendency which will surely sooner or later injure both himself and his hearers.”
If the preacher has failed to cultivate meditation in his personal life or lacks understanding about spiritual gifts, he will almost certainly never choose to preach on the topic of meditation or spiritual gifts. But, if he is preaching through the Psalms or 1 Corinthians, he will be forced to explore God’s precious thoughts on these matters. Preaching through large portions of the Bible forces us to explore more deeply the implications of overlooked doctrines like the ascension, the Priesthood of Christ, and the physical resurrection of believers. It helps to plug up the holes in our thinking. Again, the whole Bible is needed for whole Christians.
Preaching through large portions of the Bible forces us to explore more deeply the implications of overlooked doctrines.
Expository preaching results in a Bible-literate people. G. Campbell Morgan said “The sermon is the text repeated more fully.” As the expositor explains and applies the meaning of a Bible passage, people’s reaction is “Wow! I can’t believe that I didn’t see that; but, now that I do, I will never be able to unsee it.” Muller also observed that expository preaching “opens the Scriptures to [the congregation] and creates in them a desire to meditate for themselves. When they again read over the portion of the Word which has been expounded, they will remember what has been said. Thus, it leaves a more lasting impression on their minds.”
Consequently, he observes that expository preaching “encourages the congregation to bring their Bibles to church.” When people expect to actually look at the Book, they will bring their Bibles; since most preachers rarely spend more than a minute in the text, most people do not bring their Bibles. The fault is ours! Expository preaching results in a people who love and understand the whole Bible. What could be more satisfying? The needs of John and Sarah are exceedingly met!
Expository preaching grounds people in the centrality of Christ. Since every text of Scripture is to be exposited in its context, every text of Scripture is to be shown in its ultimate context: the whole Bible. Since the whole Bible points to Jesus, every expository sermon points us to Him! Nothing could have been more intriguing than when Jesus, “beginning at Moses and all the prophets, expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself" (Lk. 24:27). Expository preachers aim to do the same by expounding every passage of Scripture so that “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” is clearly displayed (2 Cor. 4:6).
Expository preaching is transformative, not just informative. According to 1 Corinthians 1:21, “it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” Therefore, our understanding of preaching must be firstly concerned with saving souls. Thomas Cook writes, “The preacher has more to do than to furnish the mind with facts. He has to appeal to the conscience, to touch the heart, to capture the will, and change the whole course of life.”
Feeling the weightiness of his charge, the expositor falls back on the text of Scripture as he calls men to repentance and faith.
What better way to appeal to the conscience, touch the heart, capture the will, and change the whole course of life than by confronting men with the plain meaning of God’s messages in the text of Scripture? “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:12-13).
Because the Bible is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16), the most powerful messages are God’s messages from God’s Book. A preacher is “a man with a horn to his lips, through which he proclaims the message from the King which means life or death to those who hear it…God has called him to be His spokesman — to publish the command on which hangs the eternal destiny of those who are reached by the sound of his voice…His soul should glow and quiver under the tremendous burden of his message, until, like an irrepressible fire or flood, it must have vent somewhere” (Cook).
Feeling the weightiness of his charge, the expositor falls back on the text of Scripture as he calls men to repentance and faith, knowing that the Holy Spirit will empower his words insofar as they are the words of God. The expositor presses people to encounter God in the Scriptures He has provided for our transformation. Expository preaching, reliant on the unction of the Spirit, saves souls just as surely as it results in Bible literacy, covers the whole scope of Christian teaching, and grounds people in the centrality of Christ and authority of Scripture.
Expository Preaching and Small Groups
Expository preaching bridges the gap between experience and knowledge by grounding our experience in the truths that confront us in the pages of holy writ. We should humbly and prayerfully assess our preaching; likely, many of the deficits in our churches can be remedied by expository preaching.
Notwithstanding, the resurgence of small groups is not necessarily opposed to this. We do not need to downplay small groups to elevate preaching; likewise, we do not need to downplay preaching to elevate small groups. Both serve a purpose.
When we unleash the power of an expository pulpit ministry, small groups will be able to serve other needs: accountability, sermon review, fellowship, and discussion. May we never lose the primacy of preaching! May we never lose the unique opportunities afforded by small groups!
Cook, Thomas. Soul-Saving Preaching.
Koller, Charles. Expository Preaching Without Notes.
Lloyd-Jones, D. Martin. Preaching & Preachers.
MacArthur, John. Rediscovering Expository Preaching.
Muller, George. The Autobiography of George Muller.
Robinson, Haddon. Biblical Preaching.
Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students.
Stott, John. The Challenge of Preaching.
Thomas, Derek. “The Necessity of Expository Preaching." Ligonier Ministries.
Assistant Editor, Content Strategist
Dr. Timothy Cooley, Sr.
Fact Checker, Accountability Editor