by Johnathan Arnold
The church has recently awakened to this reality and is taking more responsibility for bridging the gap between experience and knowledge. A new watchword in evangelicalism is “discipleship,” by which most mean systematic teaching in a small group setting similar to the class meetings of the Wesleyan heritage. These small groups typically cover a series of Bible studies or follow a pre-written curriculum.
Since some churches have been successful with the small group model (a dialogue), it has caused many to question the primacy of preaching (a monologue) for the ever-connected modern audience. It was recently said that “in the contemporary church, small groups will increasingly become the primary way that the church goes forward, even more-so than preaching.” This is tragically misplaced thinking. We should not be intimidated by small group discipleship; however, we should be alarmed when it is pursued at the expense of preaching.
While some have turned to small group discipleship to bridge the gap between experience and knowledge, the preaching of the Word is still the most important thing that happens in any church.
In the new era of small group discipleship, we must not forget that preaching is discipleship. We tend to think about discipleship and preaching as two separate things; rather, preaching is the main way that discipleship happens and small groups supplement the pulpit ministry. The preaching of the Word is still the most important thing that happens in any church; therefore, we must reevaluate our philosophy of preaching to meet the needs of the people in our pews. In short, we must establish expository preaching as the new norm.
What is Expository Preaching?
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains that a preacher is an ambassador who has received a message from the King. The message that the King has given to him is the Bible. In a sermon, “I do not bring my own thoughts and ideas, I do not just tell people what I think or surmise: I deliver to them what has been given to me.”
A preacher is “a man with a horn to his lips, through which he proclaims the message from the King which means life or death to those who hear it.”
Paul commanded Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2). He was to preach the Bible and the Bible alone. Moreover, he was to be “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) on a consistent basis. The word “dividing” means “to cut,” especially with precision like a master carpenter. Derek Thomas explains that “cutting” the word meant that “Timothy was to drive a straight path through the Word of God and not deviate to the left or to the right. He was to ‘preach the word,’ meaning not only that he was to preach from the Bible, but that he was to expound the particular passage he was preaching on.”
If John and Sarah heard 5,000 expository sermons from a pastor who illuminated the meaning of seven Bible verses each service, they would learn the entire Bible. Of course, no pastor preaches three times every week. But suppose they had only heard 1,500 sermons (less than one per week). They would still have heard over one-third of the Bible explained and applied. That is the entire New Testament plus portions of the Old Testament.
Expository preaching bridges the gap between experience and knowledge by grounding our experience in the truths that confront us in the pages of holy writ.
The Inferiority of Topical Preaching
J. I. Packer makes a compelling argument against topical preaching when he says that “in a topical sermon the text is reduced to a peg on which the speaker hangs his line of thought; the shape and thrust of the message reflect his own best notions of what is good for people rather than being determined by the text itself…topical discourses of this kind, no matter how biblical their component parts, cannot but fall short of being preaching in the full sense of that word, just because their biblical content is made to appear as part of the speaker’s own wisdom.”
“In a topical sermon the text is reduced to a peg on which the speaker hangs his line of thought.”
John MacArthur notes that “from our weakened exposition and our superficial topical talks we have produced a generation of Christian sheep having no shepherd.” Elsewhere he warns that “We must not get in the way, but rather allow our texts to ‘preach’ themselves.” Topical preaching falls desperately short of this and thus a new era of small group discipleship has arisen to fill the deficit.
The Benefits of Expository Preaching
We have no power apart from the Word of God; the Word has its own power. People have a right to disregard our claims when they are made apart from a direct correlation to the Word of God. The God-breathed Word is our only authority as ministers. Haddon Robinson points to this as the main argument for expository preaching: he writes, “when [ministers] fail to preach the Scriptures, they abandon their authority…the type of preaching that best carries the force of divine authority is expository preaching.”
Expository preaching is making claim to people’s lives by pointing to what is right there in front of them in the Bible.
Expository preaching demands that all of one’s thoughts are shaped by the text. The passage at hand is not just the launching point for the preacher’s thoughts — the passage at hand is the sermon. The main point that we communicate to the audience must be the main point of the passage. The Bible text that we exposit forms the boundaries for what we say.
Young preachers are often told, “Wait ’til you have to preach three sermons each week — you will struggle to find sermon ideas.” How unsettling! If we start with the Bible, how could we ever run out of ideas? The Scripture is a mine that can never be exhausted! The only way that a preacher runs out of ideas is if he is trying to think up ideas and turn to the Bible for support. This is a grave error! If we approach the Scriptures with an idea in mind, we will almost certainly bend the Scriptures to our thoughts. The humble preacher recognizes that he is a learner first, in need of being bent to the Scriptures. Expository preaching requires that we go to the Bible first, often shattering our preconceived notions altogether.
Expository preaching requires that we go to the Bible first, often shattering our preconceived notions altogether. The text that we exposit then forms the boundaries for what we say.
Charles Koller puts it this way: “unless the Scriptures constitute the basis for all the structural elements of a sermon and unless the expositor labors diligently in the context of each of the texts he cites, a sermon will inevitably lack the power of the Word of Truth rightly divided, and hearers will be misled, both in the substance of what is taught and in the example of Bible study methodology. The preacher must lead his people into the text, not away from it.”
Yes! As we explore God’s meaning in a passage, it changes us deeply and in turn we can confront others with the same life changing message. This level of engagement with the Word of God has an unparalleled effect on the body of Christ. The hard work of exposition is worth the fruit it produces. The long-term, practical difference is between meeting or neglecting the needs of the people in the pew.
The expositor understands that his most creative, fascinating, audience-gripping ideas cannot rival the power of the God-breathed Word simply explained and applied.
If the preacher has failed to cultivate meditation in his personal life or lacks understanding about spiritual gifts, he will almost certainly never choose to preach on the topic of meditation or spiritual gifts. But, if he is preaching through the Psalms or 1 Corinthians, he will be forced to explore God’s precious thoughts on these matters. Preaching through large portions of the Bible forces us to explore more deeply the implications of overlooked doctrines like the ascension, the Priesthood of Christ, and the physical resurrection of believers. It helps to plug up the holes in our thinking. Again, the whole Bible is needed for whole Christians.
Preaching through large portions of the Bible forces us to explore more deeply the implications of overlooked doctrines.
Consequently, he observes that expository preaching “encourages the congregation to bring their Bibles to church.” When people expect to actually look at the Book, they will bring their Bibles; since most preachers rarely spend more than a minute in the text, most people do not bring their Bibles. The fault is ours! Expository preaching results in a people who love and understand the whole Bible. What could be more satisfying? The needs of John and Sarah are exceedingly met!
Feeling the weightiness of his charge, the expositor falls back on the text of Scripture as he calls men to repentance and faith.
Because the Bible is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16), the most powerful messages are God’s messages from God’s Book. A preacher is “a man with a horn to his lips, through which he proclaims the message from the King which means life or death to those who hear it…God has called him to be His spokesman — to publish the command on which hangs the eternal destiny of those who are reached by the sound of his voice…His soul should glow and quiver under the tremendous burden of his message, until, like an irrepressible fire or flood, it must have vent somewhere” (Cook).
Feeling the weightiness of his charge, the expositor falls back on the text of Scripture as he calls men to repentance and faith, knowing that the Holy Spirit will empower his words insofar as they are the words of God. The expositor presses people to encounter God in the Scriptures He has provided for our transformation. Expository preaching, reliant on the unction of the Spirit, saves souls just as surely as it results in Bible literacy, covers the whole scope of Christian teaching, and grounds people in the centrality of Christ and authority of Scripture.
Expository Preaching and Small Groups
Notwithstanding, the resurgence of small groups is not necessarily opposed to this. We do not need to downplay small groups to elevate preaching; likewise, we do not need to downplay preaching to elevate small groups. Both serve a purpose.
When we unleash the power of an expository pulpit ministry, small groups will be able to serve other needs: accountability, sermon review, fellowship, and discussion. May we never lose the primacy of preaching! May we never lose the unique opportunities afforded by small groups!
Koller, Charles. Expository Preaching Without Notes.
Lloyd-Jones, D. Martin. Preaching & Preachers.
MacArthur, John. Rediscovering Expository Preaching.
Muller, George. The Autobiography of George Muller.
Robinson, Haddon. Biblical Preaching.
Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students.
Stott, John. The Challenge of Preaching.
Thomas, Derek. “The Necessity of Expository Preaching.” Ligonier Ministries.