If preaching is central to Christian worship, what kind of preaching are we talking about? The sheer weightlessness of much contemporary preaching is a severe indictment of our superficial Christianity. When the pulpit ministry lacks substance, the church is severed from the word of God, and its health and faithfulness are immediately diminished.
Many evangelicals are seduced by the proponents of topical and narrative preaching. The declarative force of Scripture is blunted by a demand for story, and the textual shape of the Bible is supplanted by topical considerations. In many pulpits, the Bible, if referenced at all, becomes merely a source for pithy aphorisms or convenient narratives.
The therapeutic concerns of the culture too often set the agenda for evangelical preaching. Issues of the self predominate, and the congregation expects to hear simple answers to complex problems. Furthermore, postmodernism claims intellectual primacy in the culture, and even if they do not surrender entirely to doctrinal relativism, the average congregant expects to make his or her own final decisions about all important issues of life, from worldview to lifestyle.
Authentic Christian preaching carries a note of authority and a demand for decisions not found elsewhere in society. The solid truth of Christianity stands in stark contrast to the flimsy pretensions of postmodernity. Unfortunately, the appetite for serious preaching has virtually disappeared among many Christians, who are content to have their fascinations with themselves encouraged from the pulpit.
One of the first steps to a recovery of authentic Christian preaching is to define exactly what we mean when we discuss authentic preaching as exposition. Many preachers claim to be expositors, but in many cases this means no more than that the preacher has a biblical text in mind, no matter how tenuous may be the actual relationship between the text and the sermon.
I offer the following definition of expository preaching as a framework for consideration:
“Expository preaching is that mode of Christian preaching that takes as its central purpose the presentation and application of the text of the Bible. All other issues and concerns are subordinated to the central task of presenting the biblical text. As the word of God, the text of Scripture has the right to establish both the substance and the structure of the sermon. Genuine exposition takes place when the preacher sets forth the meaning and message of the biblical text and makes clear how the word of God establishes the identity and worldview of the church as the people of God.”
Expository preaching begins with the preacher’s determination to present and explain the text of the Bible to his congregation. This simple starting point is a major issue of division in contemporary homiletics for many preachers assume that they must begin with a human problem or question and then work backward to the biblical text. On the contrary, expository preaching begins with the text and works from the text to apply its truth to the lives of believers. If this determination and commitment are not clear at the outset, something other than expository preaching will result.
The preacher always comes to the text and to the preaching event with many concerns and priorities in mind, many of which are undeniably legitimate and important in their own right. Nevertheless, if genuine exposition of the word of God is to take place, those other concerns must be subordinate to the central and irreducible task of explaining and presenting the biblical text.
Expository preaching is inescapably bound to the serious work of exegesis. If the preacher is to explain the text, he must first study the text and devote the necessary hours of study and research necessary to understand the text. The pastor must invest the largest portion of his energy and intellectual engagement (not to mention his time) to this task of “accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). There are no shortcuts to genuine exposition. The expositor is not an explorer who returns to tell tales of the journey, but a guide who leads the people into the text and teaches the arts of the Bible study and interpretation even as he demonstrates the same.
Moreover, because the Bible is the inerrant and infallible word of God, the shape of the biblical text is also therefore divinely directed. God has spoken through the inspired human authors of Scripture, and each different genre of biblical literature demands that the preacher give careful attention to the text, allowing it to shape the message. Far too many preachers come to the text with a sermonic shape in mind and a limited set of tools in hand. To be sure, the shape of the sermon may differ from preacher to preacher and should differ from text to text. But genuine exposition demands that the text establish the shape as well as the substance of the sermon.
The preacher rises in the pulpit to accomplish one central purpose–to set forth the message and meaning of the biblical text. This requires historical investigation, literary discernment, and the faithful employment of the analogia fidei to interpret the Scripture by Scripture. It also requires the expositor to reject the modern conceit that what the text meant is not necessarily what it means. If the Bible is truly the enduring and eternal word of God, it means what it meant as it is newly applied in every generation.
Once the meaning of the text is set forth, the preacher moves to application. Application of biblical truth is a necessary task of expository preaching. But application must follow the diligent and disciplined task of explaining the text itself. T. H. L. Parker describes preaching like this: “Expository preaching consists in the explanation and application of a passage of Scripture. Without explanation it is not expository; without application it is not preaching.”
Application is absolutely necessary, but it is also fraught with danger. The first danger is the temptation to believe that the preacher can or should manipulate the human heart. The preacher is responsible for setting forth the eternal word of Scripture. Only the Holy Spirit can apply that word to human hearts or even open eyes to understand and receive the text.
Every sermon presents the hearer with a forced decision. We will either obey or disobey the word of God. The sovereign authority of God operates through the preaching of his word to demand obedience from his people. Preaching is the essential instrumentality through which God shapes his people as the Holy Spirit accompanies the preaching of the word. As the Reformers remind us, it is through preaching that Christ is present among his people.
Tomorrow: Three characteristics of genuine expository preaching.