It seems strange to say it out loud (or type it out anyway), but expository preaching is all the rage these days. This is a great thing. God’s people need to hear His Word preached. Despite what some may say they are hungry for it. Just this past Sunday a millennial who looked about as millennial as a millennial could look, the exact kind of person who many would say “are over” preaching, told me how relieved he was when the phrase expository preaching was uttered by the man doing announcements at the beginning of the service. But this is where things can get a bit hinky, just because a preacher describes himself as an expositor, doesn’t mean he is, and just because a sermon is labeled as expository doesn’t mean it is. Sometimes preaching wears a mask.
I’m not talking about obvious things, where a sermon has absolutely no connection to the text, like an “exposition” of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 I once sat through that was entitled “Christmas in Corinth” and was a 25 minute yarn about a hypothetical first century Christmas party in the Corinthian church. That kind of thing is easy enough to spot.
I’m not talking about the kind of preaching where every text in such a way that every sermon, no matter the text, winds up being a topical sermon on the preacher’s hobby horse, whether political, cultural or whatever. Although, contrary to popular lore, Spurgeon never said it, it is a valid principle that the preacher should be able to make a beeline to the cross from any text, because every text has gospel implications. But some seem to be able to make a beeline to their favorite political party’s platform, or their preference in music or entertainment, or current events from any text, and that is just plain bad preaching.
I’m talking about something far more subtle. I’m talking about when the preacher preaches from the Bible Instead of preaching the Bible. Let me explain. To preach the Bible is to preach what the Bible says, to allow the authorial intent of the passage to shape the sermon. What I mean by that is that if the passage is speaking about church unity a truly expository sermon on that passage is going to be about church unity. Of course different application can be made but the thrust of the sermon is always the same as that of the original passage. To put it simply Scripture cannot mean what it never meant, so our role as preachers is to help the people understand a passage in the same way that the original readers would have and them make help them make present application of the text and to exhort them to respond to the text.
To preach from the Bible is to use passages, and sometimes words or phrases in the Bible to say true biblical things, but not things that are not being taught in a given passage.
Now I’m not saying that there is never a place for a sermon that focuses on a Biblical or theological concept within an expository series, sometimes it is good and helpful to preach a sermon on a theological concept that is important to a section of Scripture or a book, so that when the text is preached the people have a more robust understanding of that key concept when the passage is expounded to them. For instance if I was preaching through Paul’s Letter to the Romans, I might preach a message on justification before I moved into Romans 4, I might even call it Justified by Faith Pt 1 as a part of a multi message treatment of Rom 4:1-8. But a steady diet of messages like that, even if they are full of truth and sound theology, is not expository preaching, and it is not declaring the whole counsel of God (see Acts 20:27). And it will leave the church in a state of spiritual anemia.
Let me give you a real life example. I have an acquaintance who live in another part of the country, who listens to the messages from PBC online, and sometimes interacts with me about them. Wanting to encourage him to focus his energies on his local church and what was being preached there, I asked him about what was being preached. He told me Romans and that they had been in Romans 1 for nearly 2 years. I was intrigued so I checked out a few of the sermons, and they were excellent, but they had absolutely nothing to do with Romans 1. For instance, I heard three excellent biblical surveys of the doctrine of faith, but they had only a vague tangential connection to the stated text of Romans 1:8 and absolutely no connection to the paragraph that runs from Rom 1:8-15.
In fact I preached through both Ephesians and 1 Peter (over 64 messages and about 15 other messages as well) before that preacher reached the end of Romans 2. The people he preached to learned a lot of good sound theology, but they weren’t being taught what was in Romans 1 or 2.
And that is supremely important. The Word of God is living and active (Heb 4:12) it is profitable (2 Tim 3:16-17) and was written for our instruction (Rom 15:4). While certainly there is a place for topical and strictly theological sermons, they shouldn’t be the steady diet of God’s people, God’s people need to hear His Word preached.
And His Word is preached when that Word shapes the sermon. True sequential exposition allows the Word of God to shape what is preached to God’s people. Faithful exposition of God’s Word, verse by verse, ensures that God’s people hear what God the Holy Spirit intended His people to hear on the subjects He intended.
In large part the resurgence of expository preaching is due to the preaching ministry of John MacArthur and the success of the radio ministry rooted in his pulpit ministry. John MacArthur has said that the first element that marks a true expository sermon is that it explains the text. I heartily recommend that if at all possible you attend a church dedicated to expository preaching, the kind that sticks to the text and explains it. But please understand that expository preaching is not a matter of what is said on a church’s website or is printed on the front of the bulletin, it is a matter of what rings out from the pulpit. And don’t be fooled when topical or theological preaching wears a mask.