On one of the first Sundays of my first pastorate in 1977, I announced to my small rural congregation that I intended to preach “expository sermons.” Few understood what I meant, and I was later shocked to learn the ensuing confusion. It came to light when one of my members, a farmer and handyman, approached me and asked what I had meant by “suppository sermons.” I changed my terminology to “expositional sermons,” which was still an unfamiliar term—but over time they got it. Expositional sermons are those that work their way progressively through a passage of Scripture, which is studied and presented in situ and in a way that lets the Bible speak for itself.
If you drop into most any evangelical church next Sunday, you’ll probably hear one of two types of sermons – thematic or text-driven.
In many churches, you’ll hear a thematic sermon, a typical topical talk, in which the pastor has taken an issue related to Scripture – one that is immediate and compelling, such as money-management, decision-making, pornography, or marriage-building – and wondered: “What can I say about this?”
But in a few churches, you’ll hear a pastor unfold Scripture passage by passage, through books, paragraphs, and verses. The sermons are driven and shaped by the text. This is the pastor whose attitude is: “What does God say in His Word and how does He say it?”
Expositional preaching is based on a simple conviction: God has given us a book with sixty-six installments and each book has its own message for our souls that unfolds in a rational way. Since God inspired each book, His logic uncoils sequentially as we study through that book. In the process, we understand His thinking about how He wants us to live.
Psalm 119:130 says, “The unfolding of Your words gives light.”
Take a sermon on “Being a Better Dad,” for example. That’s a great subject, one in which a thematic preacher can develop some take-away points, all of them perhaps supported by various Bible verses, such as: Love your wife; spend time with your kids; affirm their interests; apply discipline by reasoning with them through issues, and let your prayers be the wind pushing them onward.
But an expositor takes a different approach. The expositional preacher may think of Ephesians 5 and 6. Here God tells us to avoid drunkenness and to be filled with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18), which results in a transformed personality (Ephesians 5:19), a spirit of gratitude (Ephesians 5:20), and a humble attitude (Ephesians 5:21). That changes the complexion of our marriages (Ephesians 5:22-33) and sets the stage for God’s great admonition for dads: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
How we “bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” allows for some practical suggestions, but those suggestions are offered within the context of God’s view of a Spirit-filled dad; and it’s the Spirit-filled part that makes the other suggestions effective.
Both types of sermons are potentially biblical; both can abound with stories and illustrations; both are relevant; and both stress practical application. But there’s a crucial difference: One is based on the preacher’s sequence of thought, and the other is based on the way God Himself has thought through the issue.
One sermon represents application-based preaching. The other represents expositionally-based preaching with application.
God did not give us His Word in a topical fashion. It’s not simply a collection of aphorisms, mottos, principles, quotations, and assorted truisms. It’s a remarkably unified book—sixty-six yet one; one yet sixty-six—laid out progressively, intelligently, rationally.
That doesn’t mean we must begin with Genesis and preach all the way through to Revelation, as Dr. W. A. Criswell did over a seventeen-year span at First Baptist Church of Dallas. But it does mean whenever we preach, whether from Malachi or Matthew, we should understand the placement of that book in the overall framework of Scripture and be faithful to its broader and narrower contexts.
The soundest general practice for the expositional preacher is to preach through entire books of the Bible; but sometimes we can prepare sermons or series that are topically-expositional. A few years ago, I did a series of sermons on Riveting Strength—about how to be a stronger person; how to be stronger against temptation; how to be stronger in our faith and in the face of temptation and opposition. It was a twelve-part topical series, but each sermon was a stand-alone exposition of a great strength passage of the Bible. I took a dozen biblical paragraphs and provided a series of expositions on them, so that each strength-occurrence was studied in context. Those messages were later published as a book co-written with my wife, Katrina, called The Strength You Need.
In my current ministry, I often travel and speak to groups, churches, schools, and organizations; so I can’t always present a complete series of messages through an entire book of the Bible. At The Donelson Fellowship, I now share the joy of the pulpit with my Lead Pastor. But my expositional approach isn’t affected. I can preach through Psalm 1 expositionally; I can deal with 1 Peter 4:7-11 expositionally; I can deal with the life of Moses expositionally; and I’m often able to memorize the passage I’m speaking on, which causes the text to echo in my mind for days and weeks before I preach it.
Nevertheless, preaching consecutively through the various books of the Bible, it seems to me, is the best diet for the people of God and the foundational habit for a solid ministry in a local church.
Expositional preaching assumes a high view of Scripture. It’s based on the notion that God’s thoughts are better than ours. He has given us a book that is orderly, thorough, well arranged, containing deep undercurrents of theological truth and practical ramification. He covers all the topics we crave, and His Word thoroughly equips us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17). He has laid out His arguments, commandments, promises, and exhortations in a progressive, unified, rational way. As we work through passages in sequence and allow them to take the lead, we’re following the synapses of the mind of Almighty God about all the matters that concern life.
Furthermore, if you preach expositionally, you will sooner or later cover every relevant topic that affects our culture, including many we probably wouldn’t have dealt with were we simply preaching thematically.
For example, do you want to speak with authority on issues like these:
- Passing on your faith to your children?
- How the Holy Spirit gives us courage, not timidity?
- The mission of Christ?
- What to do when deserted by friends?
- How to make disciples?
- How to develop habits of success?
- The power of perseverance?
- Discerning error and exposing false teachers?
- Combating youthful temptation?
- Getting older people to respect you?
- Dealing with quarrelsome folks?
- What will happen in the Last Days?
- The nature and authority of Scripture?
- Global persecution?
- The coming day of judgment?
- How to keep your head in all situations?
- Supernatural deliverance?
- Eternal life?
You will deal with all those topics and more by preaching a series of messages from 2 Timothy. In developing those bullet points, I simply read through 2 Timothy and listed those topics in the order of their appearance. You needn’t devote an entire sermon to each of these bullet points, but as you handle the paragraphs of the book at the pace you choose, you’ll have the opportunity of touch on any or all those vital issues. The overarching theme of 2 Timothy is staying strong in our morale (2 Timothy 1:5 – 2:13) and ministry (2 Timothy 2:14 – 4:5), no matter what happens. When you understand the arguments and architecture of a book like 2 Timothy, your sermons reflect a biblical quality that enables us to fulfill Paul’s great verse in this epistle about preaching — 2 Timothy 2:15: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the Word of truth.”
Of all our obligations as pastors, preachers, and teachers, the gravest and greatest is handing the Word of God correctly. It is my settled conviction that we do that best as we prepare and deliver expository – sorry, I meant to say expositional – sermons.
(To Be Continued)