Biblical Exposition: The Foundation of Effective Discipleship

What is the foundation, the cornerstone of church discipleship programs?

I realize that a lot of folks, especially some of my good friends, are not going to agree with this old fogey’s take on this.

The church has a lot of discipleship programs today – Sunday School, small groups, short-term studies, how-to classes. All of them have their effect and impact. But in my 32 years of ministry, I have come to believe that there is a specific discipleship program that is the ground of truly effective discipleship. The impact of the other programs is magnified if this discipleship program is effective, and if this program is not in effect, the other programs struggle to find traction.

What is this program?

The consistent, expositional preaching of God’s Word from the pulpit, week after week.

When I went to Southwestern (back in 1980-81) preaching was generally held in low esteem. I listened (seething inside a little) as one professor dismissed preaching as an outdated and ineffective form of communication. It just wouldn’t work in the modern world. My preaching professor showed little interest in exegetical or expositional preaching. He was a typical “three points and a poem” prof.

But in the decades of my ministry I have come to believe in the importance and impact of consistent, expositional preaching of the Bible. There is a lot I have done wrong in my ministry and many things I wish I could do again. But I have seen God work in the people I shepherd as I proclaim God’s Word week by week.

As I have observed the effect of biblical exposition through the years, I have formulated a motto for my ministry.

The Spirit of God uses the Word of God to do the Work of God in the people of God. 

I am not in any way downplaying the importance of small groups or other discipleship programs, but I would remind pastors that Paul’s admonitions to Timothy were more like “Preach the Word” than they were “start small groups.” Since this is not an either/or equation, we do not have to choose between the two, but I would say that if you are dissatisfied with the progress of discipleship in your church then you ought to…

“Start at the very beginning, a very fine place to start.
When you read, you begin with ABC, when you sing you begin with do-re-mi.”

And when you disciple, you begin with “Preach the Word.”

It’s a very fine place to start.

Permit me to share just a couple of verses that buttress my point.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17

Since we all know that passage, I need not do any more than point out the obvious. The Bible is God’s breath – his inspired and inerrant word. It is “useful” or “profitable” to teach (to disciple!), to reprove (to identify sin in our lives) to correct (to show how to stop doing the wrong thins), and to train in righteousness (to show people how to stay on the right path and off the wrong path). How can that be described as anything but the discipleship process?

Then, Paul goes on to say that through the use of the profitable Word, the man of God will be complete (mature) and ready for every good work God lays before him. The Word of God is our primary discipleship curriculum. Does anyone disagree with that?

This is an instance in which chapter divisions are unfortunate. The passage goes on to say immediately thereafter:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. 2 Timothy 4:1-5

The primary method of discipleship is to “preach the Word.”

Please hear me, I am not saying that the only way we should disciple in the church is through the preaching ministry. What I am saying is that the preaching ministry is the primary and effective tool of discipleship in the church. I am saying that to try to develop a discipleship program without the in-depth, consistent, exposition of God’s Word is foolish.

Start at the beginning. It’s a very fine place to start.

One more scripture here – among the most misappropriated of Scripture.

Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint,
but blessed is he who keeps the law. Proverbs 29:18

This is used by motivational experts to support their ideas of vision-casting and long-range planning. Again, I am not saying that these have no place in Christian leadership, but I am saying that vision-casting is NOT what Proverbs 29:18 is all about.

The word translated vision speaks (as the translation above makes clear) of prophetic vision – of the revelation of the will of God. When God’s Word is made clear among his people, the Spirit uses that Word to bring restraint (limiting the expression of the sinful nature) among God’s people. “The Spirit of God uses the Word of God to do the Work of God in the People of God.”

We abandon the exposition of the Word of God then wonder why people live sinful lives?


It is God’s Word, applied to hearts by the power of the Spirit of God, that restrains the sinful nature, reproves and corrects and then trains in righteousness.

Let me be VERY clear here.

1) I am not saying we should abandon discipleship programs, discipleship classes, small groups or any of that. Those are important parts of the work of God. I am not advocating abandoning those, or even putting less emphasis on them. I am reacting to things I have read and discussions I have had in which the importance of preaching the Word as a discipleship program has been subtly discounted. t

2) I am saying that the most important discipleship program in the church is the accurate proclamation of God’s Word; exegetically, expositionally, passionately, with vigor, power and passion, with a call to repent, to apply the Word and to live in obedience to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

  • If you preach the powerful and effective Word of God, you might find your other discipleship programs more effective.
  • If you preach less exegetical, less expositional, less Bible-centered sermons, do not be surprised if your discipleship work becomes a lot harder and less effective.

One note here: when I talk about preaching the Word, I’m not talking about delivering theological treatises from the pulpit. I am afraid that too often exposition has been confused with delivering lectures on Greek grammar and systematic theology. That is not really preaching.

  • But I am talking about sermons where the Bible is not used to get across your message, but the Bible is the foundation of your message. You are not using a text to deliver our ideas, but letting your ideas be driven by text itself.
  • I am talking about sermons that are intensely practical, directed toward people’s needs, sermons that hit people where they live. The Bible hits people where they live. If your sermons are not “relevant” they are probably not actually biblical. But your relevant preaching is driven by the text.
  • I am talking about sermons that are passionate, interesting, filled with stories, humor – none of these is inimical to expositional preaching. But it all roots in a desire to explain what God says in his Word to people who need to know what God says about their lives.
  • I am talking about verse-by-verse exposition as the pattern, though preaching can be expositional without being verse-by-verse. I recommend verse-by-verse as the norm, but there is no sin in straying from that (a holiday message, a study of a biblical topic, a biblical theme, etc).
  • I am talking about forceful and personal application of the principles of God’s Word. I have been baffled by statements I’ve heard discounting the importance of application in the message (leaving that work to the Holy Spirit). The first message we have is Peter’s at Pentecost. It is an explanation of OT Scriptures, but it ends with this statement, “with many words he exhorted them to save themselves from this corrupt generation.” The preacher’s duty is not only to explain the Word, but to clearly explain how that applies to the lives of the hearers. Exposition + Application = Transformation. Of course, that is all a work of the Spirit, but we are his tools in the process.

One more time – I am not attempting to nullify discipleship programs or their importance. I am saying that those who seek to build effective discipleship programs should never discount the ground and foundation of all effective discipleship programs, the consistent exposition of God’s Word.


  1. Dave Miller says

    Warning to the first person who argues that I have discounted the importance of discipleship programs.

    There are plenty of imprecatory prayers in the Bible, and as a former 2nd VP, I am not afraid to pray them!

    • Dave Miller says

      Appoint a wicked man against him;
      let an accuser stand at his right hand.
      7  When he is tried, let him come forth guilty;
      let his prayer be counted as sin!
      8  May his days be few;
      may another take his office!

      May the creditor seize all that he has;
      may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil!
      12  Let there be none to extend kindness to him,

      I couldn’t even post the ones about children and such – even in jest.
      Psalm 109 is harsh.

  2. says

    More seriously–

    Proverbs 21:31: “The horse is prepared for the day of battle, but victory belongs to YHWH.”

    Solomon does not discount preparation–he merely points to the reality that success comes from God Almighty. Any type of program is preparing the horses. But if the Lord Himself does not come to the battle, no program is enough.

  3. Dave Miller says

    Also, though it is not the point of this post, the actual ground of all discipleship is getting people to read the Bible on their own!

    A church that has its people reading the Word and its pulpit preaching the Word will be a church that sees its people growing in grace and knowledge.

    • says


      We’re doing a read through the Bible challenge as a church this year, and I’ve been pleased at the questions I’m getting asked. People are reading and thinking.

      And that’s not only the best thing for individual believers or for churches, but the best thing for pastors. People in the pew that know the Word for themselves keep us honest and growing, and we need that!

  4. says

    This was good stuff, Dave. I had to chuckle though at a typo and the humorous thought that it triggered. In your comments on 2 Tim. 3:16-17, you added in a parenthetical note about reproof “to show how to stop doing the wrong thins.” My mind jumped to Ricky Ricardo of I Love Lucy fame and his famous line (with a Spanish accent of course), “I’ll show you a thin or two.”

      • says

        Nice. Thankfully, I am allowed to edit, and will do so promptly, making your comments null and void!

        Did you guys ever hear the joke about the guy who kept watering down the paint he was using so he could get more out of it. Every time he did, a rain came along and washed the paint away.

        Finally, a voice came out of the thunder and said, “Repaint, and thin no more.”

        Note: the above comment has been edited to remove the worst joke of the week.

          • Tarheel says

            Great post, Dave!

            I render a hearty amen!

            Y’all want corney jokes, I’ll show ya corney jokes!

            What do you call a fake noodle? 
            A: An Impasta

            Q: What do you call an alligator in a vest?  
            A: An Investigator

            Q: What happens if you eat yeast and shoe polish?  
            A: Every morning you’ll rise and shine!

            Q: “What’s the difference between a guitar and a fish?”  
            A: “You can’t tuna fish.”

            Q: Did you hear about the race between the lettuce and the tomato?  
            A: The lettuce was a “head” and the tomato was trying to “ketchup”!

            Q: Did you hear about the hungry clock?  
            A: It went back four seconds.

            Q: What do you get from a pampered cow?  
            A: Spoiled milk.

            Q: Did you hear about that new broom?  
            A: It’s sweeping the nation!

            Q: What do lawyers wear to court?  
            A: Lawsuits!  

          • Dave Miller says

            Just read Tarheel’s list of “jokes” – threw up a little in my mouth. Lunch is ruined.

            Strange how puns are good when I tell them, but bad when others do.

  5. John K says

    Connect groups are much better than small groups. So the scholarly pulpit has been saying lately.

    Good article Dave, why we spend so much time trying to improve Gods word baffles me.

    Do your best to explain in context what the verses proclaim, let God do the rest.

  6. says

    The faithful and obedient one who regularly takes the Word of God to heart is a disciple who has found the foundation, the Rock.

    One such may be a disciple without a qualified preacher; but a spiritually qualified preacher is a huge advantage.

    Yet if Jesus Himself was preaching, and a person only hears an hour or two of His words a week, such a person would be anemic; and appear as an American christian.

    • says

      A bit of clarification on what I am trying to say: The foundation of a church discipleship program is certainly preaching. But the foundation of discipleship is not the church program. Churches cannot be responsible for individual faithfulness any more than a youth pastor is responsible for raising the children.

  7. Christiane says

    “I am talking about verse-by-verse exposition as the pattern, though preaching can be expositional without being verse-by-verse. I recommend verse-by-verse as the norm, but there is no sin in straying from that (a holiday message, a study of a biblical topic, a biblical theme, etc).”

    Am wondering what biblical topic or biblical theme might tie these particular Scriptures together in a sermon intended to disciple (teach):
    Isaiah 58,
    Isaiah 61:1-4,
    and Matthew 25:31-46

  8. Louis says


    The exposition of God’s Word is foundational and essential.

    Different types of settings or forms of communication help accomplish different things, however, and a balanced person needs all of them.

    The pulpit is the place of proclamation to larger groups. The speaker is not speaking to an intimate group or one person. He can say things that can never be said in an intimate group or face to face.

    A small study group allows for other types of communication. Follow up. Questions. Mutual encouragement.

    And a one on one intimate relationship allows for an even more direct approach.

    All of these are needed and helpful, in my opinion.

    But the expositional preaching of God’s Word is the non-negotiable starting point.

  9. Tom Bryant says

    Good post, David!

    To me, one of the strong points of expositional preaching (especially preaching through a book) is that we are teaching our people to study the Bible and look at its historical context and modern application.

    btw, when will we get your take on the Yankees off season?

  10. says

    Amen and Amen, Dave! The consistent, expositional preaching of God’s Word from the pulpit, week after week is the foundation, the cornerstone of church discipleship programs. Rock solid truth!

  11. Greg Buchanan says


    Good article and true: solid Biblical preaching (not re-preaching someone else’s thoughts or the latest book to come out) is the foundation (not to say that one can’t reference another’s thoughts in this book or that article as illustrative). Expository preaching is the corner stone.

    However, TOO many churches have stopped right there as though it is enough and too many preachers don’t demand their congregations to be Berean enough. Without meaning to do so, too many pastors have a cult-of-personality developed around themselves that they don’t recognize or do anything about:

    – guest preachers where the pastor is NOT also present are not well attended
    – events where the pastor is not present are not well attended
    -Sunday morning sermons are not well attended when pastor is on vacation
    – discipleship classes that are NOT taught by pastor are not well attended

    If you pastors fit this bill (unintentionally of course) then you need to do some praying against and deconstructing of your importance. You stated and I agree: the important thing is the Word of God, whether it is heard in a sermon, a Sunday School lesson, a discipleship class on any topic or point of theology, or (possibly the most important) read at home in a devotion. The point is that the people need to be IN and INTO the Word, not you and your sermons.

    Again, I agree a well exposited sermon is the corner-stone of a congregation’s discipleship plan, but it can’t be alone; a corner-stone does not a building make.

    • says

      Without meaning to do so, too many pastors have a cult-of-personality developed around themselves that they don’t recognize or do anything about:
      – guest preachers where the pastor is NOT also present are not well attended
      – events where the pastor is not present are not well attended
      -Sunday morning sermons are not well attended when pastor is on vacation
      – discipleship classes that are NOT taught by pastor are not well attended

      I’m not sure I’d call that so much a “cult of personality” in a lot of cases, so much as it is a gross misunderstanding of the pastoral position–as if somehow a person with that title is the only one worthy in the congregation’s eyes to deliver a sermon.

      I’ve seen it in just about every church I have been a part of, and in my case as a pastor I’m pretty sure it’s not because of my personality (add to that the fact that they did the same thing with the last pastor and the one before him).

      I’ve tried to combat it a couple of ways: (1) I don’t annouce when I’m going on vacation ahead of time to the Sunday morning crowd. A Sunday is usually at the start of my vacation week and not the end, so I have the secretary put a note in the bulletin for that morning that I’ll be gone that week. Of course, I let key leadership people know as well. And (2)–and this is something that I’m going to try to do more this year–I’ll have a few Sundays where another man from the church preaches while I’m there, and again typically don’t let it be known before hand.

      • Greg Buchanan says

        as if somehow a person with that title is the only one worthy in the congregation’s eyes to deliver a sermon.

        I understand what you’re saying and it probably doesn’t always rise to the level of “cult of personality” but probably more often what you said here.

        I think I’m biased as a student of Russian and Russian history that I like the phrase “cult of personality” from Kruschev’s speech denouncing Stalin but defending the party from all wrong doing under Stalin’s leadership. And, just for Dave- :-)

        But some of the effects can transfer from the common state of “the ordained pastor is the only worthy voice” to the worse state of “cult” over time if not recognized.

        In either case, the result is a return to a Roman Catholic type practical theology where the Pastor is the keeper and dispenser of God’s grace through the sermon. Whether or not it is the title of office or truly the personality and style of preaching (or some combination) the people digress from sola scriptura and become dependent on the pastor for nourishment.

        I think this is what Paul was addressing in 1 Cor 3 and the writer of Hebrews in 5:12 about still needing milk because they have not grown as they ought. Other than directly confronting it as Paul does, I don’t know a solution.