I’m a preacher’s kid, so I grew up hearing 2 sermons a week, 52 weeks a year. We didn’t miss back then. My dad was a bit of a fanatic about something that, I now know, was not so common back among preachers back then – verse-by-verse, expository preaching. Since I sat under his preaching every week, I assumed everyone got out a Bible, tackled a passage and went through it verse after verse, picking up this week where we left off last week. Dad didn’t “do a series” – he preached a book. Romans. Ephesians. 2 Peter. I didn’t know there was any other kind of preaching, except for dad’s infrequent jabs at “topical” preaching.
When I was called to preach, I did what I knew. I really didn’t know that there was another legitimate form of preahing. I studied a passage of scripture and tried to teach it as best I could. I am now glad that few recordings exist of those early attempts, but that’s what I did. Verse-by-verse through a book of the Bible. Even as an associate pastor, I preached through Ephesians on those rare Sundays I actually preached.
When I went to Dallas Theological Seminary, expository preaching was held up as the only way. In fact (at the time, don’t know if this is still true) the Greek classes and the homiletics classes were linked. I would do an exegetical paper on a text, then preach on that same passage based on what I learned. The main points of our exegetical/grammatical outline had better be the main points of the sermon! Study text. Understand text. Explain text to others.
I still remember getting reamed by my homiletics prof when I preached from 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. In this passage, Paul describes his manner and approach in coming to Corinth. In verses 1 and 2, he tells how he determined to preach nothing among them but Christ and him crucified – not human wisdom. Then, in verse 3 and 4, he describes how, in his fear, he did not approach them depending on his rhetorical skills, but on the demonstration of the Spirit’s power. In verse 5, he explains why he did this, “…that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
So, in my message, I started with verse 5 and said, “This was Paul’s motive – he wanted to root their faith in God’s power not his wisdom. Therefore, he 1) preached Christ and 2) relied on the Holy Spirit.” I thought I’d done pretty good! Then, during the evaluation, the teaching assistant looked at me and said these words. “Dave, I don’t know if you noticed it, but verse 5 comes after verses 1-4.” He was confronting me for starting with verse 5 and then going back to verses 1-4.
Now, if I preached this passage today, I’d probably still do what I did then. I start with verse 5 and explain Paul’s motive, then go back and show how he behaved and the methods he used based on that motive. But the message that TA was trying to get through sunk in that day.
Stick to the text! Who are you to think that you can improve upon God’s inspired Word? Preach what God said!
Gotcha, prof. Loud and clear!
Then, I went to Southwestern and felt like a stranger in a strange land. I was not taught text-directed preaching but something very different. We were taught to find a big idea, back it up with some scripture, make some points from the text, get an illustration to back up each point, then an application. Point – illustration – application. There was no sense in which we were to be guided by the text in formulating a sermon outline. In fact, one prof proclaimed that preaching as a means of communicating to people was passe’ – ineffective in this modern world.
(By the way, this was the fall term of 1980 and I am aware that things have changed since then. Fortunately, our seminaries are now showing more respect for the biblical text in teaching preaching. Expository preaching is back in the forefront, and for that I am grateful.)
A few years ago, one prominent younger SBC pastor called verse-by-verse exposition homiletical cheating because it too easy. It is too easy to simply study and expound the text without passing it through the filter of our experience and the lives of those to whom we preach. And the current trend is more of a stream of consciousness, application-oriented kind of preaching.
People may be attracted to preachers who stand before them and “share their hearts.” But I think it is more important that we proclaim God’s heart. So, let me tell you why I am still a fan of expository Bible preaching – verse-by-verse.
We need to distinguish some terms here. Expository preaching and verse-by-verse preaching are often confused as synonymous. Verse-by-verse is one form of expository preaching. But expository preaching is designed to “expose” the meaning of the text. It is text-driven. Many who are committed to expository preaching also take that next step of verse-by-verse preaching through a book.
I did a study a while back about the names of God in Hebrew. When I preached this series, I did not go verse by verse, but I still believe my series was text-driven and expository in nature. I did a series called “Significant Servants” which was gleaned from the great stories of the Bible. These were not verse-by-verse series but again, I maintain that they were still expository. But the bulk of my preaching has been a book-based series. Currently, on Sunday mornings I am preaching through Proverbs and on Sunday night through 1 Corinthians.
I am a fan of expository preaching because God’s Word changes lives and my opinions and personality can’t!
I am a fan of verse-by-verse expository preaching because it brings the full counsel of God to lives of God’s people.
Here are some of my reasons for preaching (primarily) book-based, verse-by-verse, expository messages.
1) Expositional preaching recognizes the nature and power of the Word
In the pages of Holy Scripture, people find what they really need – the Living God. I have hammered this truth into my people’s memory over the years, “The Spirit of God uses the Word of God to do the work of God in the people of God.” The word of God does not return empty. It reveals the gospel which is the power of God for salvation. It is God-breathed and useful for maturing Christians “so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
It is not my wisdom that changes lives, nor my eloquence, or even my relevance. The proclamation of God’s Word changes lives. It may not tickle the ears of people, giving them simple solutions to their felt needs. Frankly, I am not sure that expositional preaching will attract the crowds other forms might. But, if our purpose is to produce mature disciples, not just fill buildings, then I believe that expositional preaching is the way to go.
I have seen the effect of this through the years. I do not have dozens walking the aisle each week, or report statistics that make others drool. But as I preach the Word, I see God’s power working slowly in people’s lives to conform them to the image of Christ. The Spirit works on the listeners and their lives become more Christlike, more obedient, more mature. I trust the text of scripture to communicate the truth and to release the power of God.
2) Expositional preaching is God-centered.
There is something that bothers me about the preaching paradigm that Stanley advocates. He advocates starting the preaching process by reading the culture and reading the audience and asking what people’s felt needs are. Does not that seem a little man-centered?
I am guided by what Paul said in 2 Timothy 4:3. “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.” People want preachers to scratch their itches. But our job is not to tell them what they want to hear but to tell them what God says.
Please know that I am not saying that Stanley and Stetzer are the kind of false teachers mentioned here. I do not believe that. However, I am suspicious of any form of preaching that starts at people’s passions and focuses on their felt needs. As unpopular as this model has become, truth flows downward from heaven. That is where we need to start.
Our question does not need to be, “What do people need to hear?” but “What does God have to say to my people?” The Old Testament prophets simply delivered the message of God to the people – faithfully and forcefully.
That is a better model, in my view.
3) Expositional preaching honors divine priorities
A famous preacher comes to mind. It didn’t seem to matter what text he read, the sermon went in the same direction. He preached against the lax morality of our culture, against people living together without marriage, against Hollywood, against homosexuals, against liberals and against communists (it was the 70’s and 80’s. He rode that hobby horse into the ground).
Should we ever preach on those things? Of course. Should we always preach on those things? Wouldn’t it be better for the text to decide that than for me to?
I preach a lot about unity in the Body of Christ. Why? Take this test: open your Bible randomly to a page in Paul’s Epistles. Read the page. I would wager that there is a significant teaching on that page about the importance of unity in the Body of Christ. Chapter after chapter, verse after verse, God’s Word hammers that theme. Unity is a divine priority.
I knew a preacher who preached almost every week on home and family issues. The New Testament addresses those issues and so should we. But there are many topics far more common in the NT than home, marriage and such issues.
When I preach expositionally, I follow God’s priorities more than mine.
4) Expositional preaching allows me to address controversial issues.
Similarly, I can address controversial issues that preachers sometimes avoid because they are in the text. If I am preaching 1 Timothy 5, I can address what it says about paying preachers. It’s in the text. It’s God’s Word, not mine. Is that a copout? Maybe. But I have addressed sexual issues when they came up, financial issues, family issues – God’s Word deals with it all.
5) Expositional preaching is intensely practical.
The negativity of some toward expositional preaching seems to be rooted in an assumption they make that I do not make. They seem to assume that expositional preaching will not be practical preaching. Expositors, they imply, just comment on the text in an academic fashion and do not preach to the needs of people.
The role of the expositor is not to give a theoretical theological treatise. His job is to explain to the hearer what Almighty God has to say about his life. The kind of preaching they describe is not expositional preaching, it is BAD expositional preaching.
The word of God is intensely practical – if it is only theological or theoretical, I have failed as an expositor. My job is to “expose” God’s Word to my congregation, to help them see life from the divine perspective.
I have found that Bible exposition is the most effective way to deal with the real needs of people, to hit them where they live and to bring about spiritual growth toward maturity.
Now, It’s Your Turn
I’ve had my say. The comment stream is now open. I am a committed, passionate, and permanent expositor of God’s Word. You are free to disagree. If you do, tell me why. Is there a better way than verse-by-verse exposition?
What say you?