This continues our series on preaching, which is based on the fourth article of the Together for the Gospel Statement. The previous post in this series was entitled “Are There Three Types of Expository Preaching?“
Tim Challies defines expository preaching as “preaching that takes the point of the text as the point of the sermon.” In my view, he wisely differentiates it from his definition of textual preaching — not by whether it is part of a longer series working through a book, but because textual preaching “refers to a passage of Scripture, but does not use the main point of the text as the main point of the sermon.”
However, later in the article Tim does seem to assume that expository preaching inevitably means that preachers will be working systematically through a book. Whilst I do value preaching through a book and think it definitely has its place, I will argue below why I feel that expository preaching is not limited simply to a verse-by-verse exegesis, which itself is not without disadvantages.
I think there are a number of real dangers and drawbacks to preaching through a book which we need to consider — this is not to say that these drawbacks cannot be overcome, and I do believe that preaching through a book can, at times, be very helpful.
- Preaching through a book can introduce the very imbalance that it is designed to remove.
Spending a decade in certain biblical books will inevitably mean that the congregation is not going to get the balanced diet we all agree they need. Yes, preaching through books forces preachers to focus on the issues that the book addresses. But there is surely a danger that the preacher will choose a book that is not sufficiently broad enough to give a good diet to the congregation. It might also be a book that reflects his own pet subject; for example, the charismatic might choose 1 Corinthians, the Calvinist Ephesians or Romans, and the eschatology fanatic would head straight for Revelation. So, a very slow preach through a book is not necessarily going to provide a good diet for every church.
- Preaching slowly through a book requires a highly skilled preacher in order to remain interesting.
Death by exposition is a real risk when the average preacher tries to emulate a Lloyd-Jones, Boice, or other gifted expositor. Sermons that are nothing more than recycled commentaries are surely boring. It is, of course, possible to preach this way and impart life, if God has gifted you in that way. But as one preacher admitted to me recently, spending even just a few months in one book can — even for the preacher — begin to feel a bit repetitive. Not everyone has the skill-set to be Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
- Insistence on long series may hinder our aim of making visitors feel welcome.
In this era of floating church populations and weekend breaks, we may not have the same people listening each week. In addition, surely we want our visitors to feel welcome. Imagine discovering on visiting a church for the first time that you have some 50 or 60 (or more!) sermons to catch up on to understand where the church is in their series. This is avoidable by making each sermon in the series stand alone and be more or less self-explanatory. But if we do this, then how is that different from a sermon which exposits a verse or paragraph seeking to put it in its context, but outside of a series?
- Long series bind the preacher and could quench the Spirit.
Whether we do have long series of sermons or not, I do feel the Doctor is definitely right when he says we must build into them the flexibility to respond to the needs of the congregation and the leading of the Holy Spirit.
In addressing some of these issues, here are some of my thoughts:
- Who says that the unit of a sermon has to be one verse?
- Why can’t an expositional sermon be based on a large unit — even up to a whole book? Mark Dever by taking this method has preached through the entire bible, and is therefore the only preacher in the world that I am aware of that can trully say he has preached the whole counsel of God.
- Why do we assume that it should take years to get through certain books — can’t some preachers who decide to do a shorter series exposit books from a slightly more “birds eye” view, thereby increasing the range of the Bible that can be covered in a given church?
- If we are agreed that expositional preaching is simply preaching that allows a portion of the Bible to speak, why must that always be part of a longer series? Surely there is room within the concept of expository preaching for one-off sermons, short series, and longer series, depending on the gifting of the preacher, the needs of the congregation, and the guiding of the Spirit?
See also my post regarding Steve Lawson on passionate preaching, delivered at the 2007 Shepherds Conference.