How Should We Define Expositional Preaching?

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saint-paul-preaching-in-athens-3511-mid.jpgI am an expository preacher. This I say without shame or apology. When Paul charges Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:2 to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2, ESV), I understand this serves as an exhortation for all preachers of the Gospel and specifically pastors of a local assembly of believers. Expositional preaching demands readiness regardless of the circumstances; it demands a pastor’s love for his people both to build up and to reprimand for the Kingdom’s sake. Most of all, expositional preaching demands great patience. God’s work for God’s people does not always happen with a quick solution. Given the high turnover rate of pastorates in our nation, local churches desperately need patient, diligent, loving pastors with the fortitude to examine, articulate, and apply the truths of Scripture to the church and culture.

In this paper, I will present my understanding of the nature and purpose of expositional preaching, along with my personal convictions on the subject as well as how I put these convictions into practice. I have benefited greatly from my time in the Doctor of Ministry program at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The amount of great reading and the refining process of writing that came with this course of study has brought me joy in broadening my horizons concerning the area of expository preaching. With this growing understanding, I shall describe my present model and method of preaching — some of which are established while others are most certainly developing.

The Definition and Purpose of Expository Preaching

Fred Craddock, the leading advocate of the New Homiletic preachingFred Craddock philosophy, makes an insightful observation concerning the hard times upon which preaching has fallen: “That there is in our time a language crisis, a general experience of the loss of power of words, is all too evident. Needless to say, this means a crisis in preaching.” [1] As a result, many differing opinions exist as to the purpose of preaching in general and expository preaching specifically. The definitions and purposes cultivated in this chaotic milieu cause many preachers and preaching professors to react against opposing preaching philosophies in various ways guided by their particular philosophy. Instead, preachers in both local church and academic settings would serve the Kingdom in a more God-honoring fashion by proactively searching the writings of the Scriptures.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord (Eph 2:19-21, ESV).

The purpose of preaching is to proclaim from the text of Scripture the meaning of the Scriptures through the ministry of the Holy Spirit who applies the Word to hearts and minds. The Apostle Paul in his epistle to the Romans declares how he was an apostle “set apart for the gospel of God” in his calling to serve Jesus Christ, “through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations” (Romans 1:1b, 5, ESV). Preaching proclaims the gospel of God and calls for a lifetime response to that proclamation. John Stott writes:

John R.W. StottFor the proper response to the gospel is faith, indeed faith alone. Yet a true and living faith in Jesus Christ both includes within itself an element of submission especially because its object is “Jesus Christ our Lord” … and leads inevitably into a lifetime of obedience. That is why the response Paul looked for was a total, unreserved commitment to Jesus Christ, which he called “the obedience of faith.” [2]

In Nehemiah 8:8 we see an expositional model of preaching that shows the thrust of what preaching should be: “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Nehemiah 8:8, ESV). In the Great Commission, Jesus gives the disciples his model for their ministry.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:18-20, ESV).

One aspect of Christ’s Great Commission to his disciples (and us) is to teach them “to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19, ESV). The nature of expositional preaching helps facilitate the command of Jesus by going systematically through the Scriptures, verse-by-verse and paragraph-by-paragraph. To echo the Apostle Paul, expositional preaching is grounded in preaching through the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27, ESV) — all of God’s revealed Word!

With the Spirit sending the Spirit-inspired Word forth to accomplish his mission (Isaiah 55:10-11; 2 Timothy 3:16-17), not only is the preacher transformed but the content of his character matches the character of the Scriptures. Greg Heisler, preaching professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC, defines expository preaching in such a way that the Spirit not only illumines the Scriptures but the heart of the preacher as well.

Expository preaching is the Spirit-empowered proclamation of biblical truth derived from the illuminating guidance of the Holy Spirit by means of a verse-by-verse exposition of the Spirit-inspired text, with a view to applying the text by means of the convicting power of the Holy Spirit, first to the preacher’s own heart, and then to the hearts of those who hear, culminating in an authentic and powerful witness to the living Word, Jesus Christ, and obedient Spirit-filled living. [3]

The thrust of this definition is quite comprehensive and the appropriate tonic needed in this crisis of preaching. Other philosophies emerge that move away from the foundation of Scripture to the foundation of the ever-changing culture. Among those philosophies are The New Homiletic and its offspring, the Emergent Church philosophy. Both of these philosophies react to deductive, propositional preaching not because of deductive preaching’s unfaithfulness to the text but because of the supposed disinterest among the people in the pew. Why the disinterest? The New Homileticians would say that the culture has changed, so preaching must change to accommodate the culture.

225px-harry_emerson_fosdick.jpgHarry Emerson Fosdick in an essay in Harper’s Magazine entitled “What’s Wrong with Preaching?” shows his philosophy of preaching and how he is the forerunner of the New Homiletic and Emerging Church philosophies:

Could any procedure [such as expository preaching] be more surely predestined to dullness and futility? Who seriously supposes that, as a matter of fact, one in a hundred of the congregation cares, to start with, what Moses, Isaiah, Paul, or John meant in those special verses, or came to church deeply concerned about it? Nobody else who talks to the public so assumes that the vial interests of the people are located in the meaning of words spoken two thousand years ago. [4]

Fosdick commits two grievous errors. First, he builds up a false notion of expository preaching in general when he should have lamented bad expository preaching which preaches with little passion. Second, Fosdick gives too much ground to a fallen culture that has continually rejected authority on the grandest scale of all: humanity has rejected the lordship of Jesus Christ as fully revealed in the Scriptures. The Fall of Man found in Genesis 3 came about out of doubting the pure Word of God and a desire to embrace their own authority and “be like God” (Genesis 3:5, ESV). Preachers must keep in mind what John MacArthur noted in a sermon he preached at Southern Seminary (a sermon we viewed in class). He declared, “This would be the worst time ever in a ministry to do anything to accommodate the culture. To make a culture under the divine judgment feel comfortable would be the antithesis of what God called a minister of the Gospel to do.” [5] I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment, and yet I fear that this is exact what the majority of our churches who have succumbed to the latest church growth fad and the latest preaching techniques believe should be done. Does this mean that preachers should not look to connect with their listeners? John R. W. Stott in his book, Between Two Worlds, says, “A true sermon bridges the gulf between the biblical and the modern worlds, and must be equally earthed in both.” [6] The basis of any connection the preacher makes is to the text of Scripture, not the messenger himself. The messenger must hide himself in the text of Scripture.

The question that lingers in both liberal and conservative homiletical circles is, “To whom should the sermon be directed ultimately?” For the New Homiletic, the listener is the primary and the preacher keeps the listener in full view. This mindset is helpful, but only to a point. Donald Hamilton notes, “Preaching is irrelevant if there is no audience. The most carefully prepared and articulately delivered sermon is pointless if no one hears.” [7] A pastor who loves his people cannot help but have his people in mind when he preaches. He loves them, lives among them, ministers in the midst of their culture. No one ministers in a vacuum and no one truly pastors and preaches in a vacuum.

Yet, he must be careful, because the listener is someone the preacher can see and one from whom he may receive immediate feedback. Thus, the temptation of the preacher would be to go for the current reaction using imaginative stories, illustrations, humor, etc., and be misled into the preacher thinking he is connecting. In truth, the preacher is connecting — but risking doing so with his own personality rather than with the Spirit-inspired Word of God.

Secondly in the New Homiletic, the preacher works diligently to keep the listener’s attention. All communicators understand that in order for them to communicate something they need someone to whom they may communicate their message — but also hold their attention. Yet what methods do they use? By what means does the preacher hold their attention? Eugene Lowry in his book The Homiletical Plot, notes that a sermon is not about a lecture or presenting points, but “is an event-in-time, a narrative art form more akin to a play or novel in shape than to a book.” [8] For Lowry and the New Homileticians, form and flow of a sermon are paramount.

While reading through Fred Craddock’s book As One Without Authority, I thought, “Dr. York’s book answers all the criticisms that Craddock’s book levies against expository preaching.” The premise of York’s book deals with preaching expositionally in an engaging manner. He notes:

Expository preaching does indeed explain the text, but it also must answer the great epistemological question: so what? When a man of God stands in the pulpit and proclaims the Word with passion, conviction, and emotion, his audience will truly hear the content of the message. Only when they actually hear it can they act on it. Making that emotional connection with the message forces a decision: will I accept the truth of this text, or reject and refuse it? [9]

Before moving on to the models and methods used in preaching, the preacher should understand that Spirit-filled expository preaching is that which is prepared in all diligent prayer and worship, and preached with passion and fire. Expository preachers preach with a pastor’s heart for his people, but always through the lens of Holy Writ. In our fallen desire to make the Bible relevant, preachers would do well to remember Psalm 119:89-90 in that the Lord is eternal and engaged in his plan and people. Thus his Word is entirely relevant:

Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens
Your faithfulness endures to all generations;
you have established the earth, and it stands fast (Psalm 119:89-90, ESV).


[1] Fred B. Craddock. As One Without Authority (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 7.

[2] John Stott, Romans (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 52-53.

[3] Greg Heisler, Spirit-Led Preaching: The Holy Spirit’s Role in Sermon Preparation and Delivery (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2007), 21.

[4] Harry Emerson Fosdick, “What’s the Matter with Preaching?” in What’s the Matter with Preaching Today? , ed. Mike Graves (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 9. Quoted in Richard L Holland, Progressional Dialogue & Preaching: Are They the Same? TMSJ 17/2 (Fall 2006), 209.

[5] John MacArthur, Jr., Abandoned By God. Downloaded 14 January 2008. Accessed at Internet.

[6] John R. W. Stott, Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982), 10.

[7] Donald L. Hamilton, “Preaching Inductively as One with Authority.” Preaching 16, no. 2 (2000), 49.

[8] Eugene L. Lowry, The Homiletical Plot (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), xx.

[9] Hershael W. York and Bert Decker. Preaching with Bold Assurance (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishing Group, 2003), 7.

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4 thoughts on “How Should We Define Expositional Preaching?

    Jack Parrish said:
    June 7, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    What troubles me most in reading books about preaching is the absence of examples of preaching done properly, that is, to put it briefly, explaining the text in the light of the context. Why is this? Good examples of preaching/teaching the truth of the scriptures would be far more effective in helping us to recognize our mistakes than dozens of abstract statements about the problem. Why don’t our seminary professors show us, in written examples, cases of poor preaching/teaching then show, in writing, what should have been taught. It won’t ever be enough to just recite supposedly good principles yet fail to give concrete examples of good and bad. This is urgently needed, IMO, because it seems that most preachers who do the poorest job think they are doing just fine. You can bet their congregations won’t tell them. Besides,the parishoners 9n many churches haven’t heard enough good sermons to make a judgment. They will have to be shown, not just exhorted in general terms, what a sermon faithful to the truth of the scriptures looks like. I’m not sure this is being done, even in seminary, judging by many sermons I read and hear, delivered by seminary grads.

    jacob said:
    November 17, 2010 at 8:47 am


    Brandon said:
    January 11, 2011 at 3:04 pm


    Why is “expository preaching” antithetical to the New Homiletic? By expository preaching do you mean sermons must be deductive in form? Is this the way the prophets of the OT, the Jesus of the Gospels, or the apostles of Acts preached? Answer: no. Perhaps the form of preaching you prefer is more a product of conservative evangelicalism than anything. Eugene Lowry’s Homiletical Plot, for example, does not attempt to sell out to culture as you say. No, Lowry’s method, in my opinion, is much close to the sermons I read in Scripture than say John MacArthur’s. He is attempting for his method to be engaging, transformational, and most of all, gospel-centered.

    Matthew R. Perry responded:
    June 13, 2011 at 2:10 pm


    I thought my comment arrived here after you entered this, but I now see that it did not. You mention the OT, Jesus, apostles. You say ‘deductive.’ But did they not give the Word of God as it was given? What God said, they made sure was fully, wholly, and completely communicated. There is nothing against deductive preaching in Scripture just as there is nothing against inductive preaching. One just has to be careful how much one allows for a culture of unbelievers who cannot discern what God’s Word has to say (1 Corinthians 2:10-16) and how much we work to reach them at the expense of those who need to be feed rationally from the truth of Scripture.

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